Eight years ago, as Washington was making the transition from the nightmare years of George W. Bush to the endless possibilities of Barack Obama, national security elites were transfixed by a military doctrine called counterinsurgency.
The modern counterinsurgency faith stirred to life in the glory days of JFK’s “hearts and minds” campaign in Vietnam. Its champions promised to win over conquered lands by eschewing raw firepower for enlightened social projects. They pledged to use cash, economic aid, and military training to convince locals that America offered their last, best hope for a better life. When they retrofitted the doctrine to help salvage the disastrous 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, they called themselves “COINdinistas.”
Leading the twenty-first-century revival of counterinsurgency was an up-and-coming army general, David H. Petraeus, who had participated in nearly every major U.S. intervention overseas since Vietnam, including those in El Salvador, Haiti, Bosnia, and Iraq. After preaching the COIN gospel for decades on the margins of the national security establishment, Petraeus was appointed in 2007 to command U.S. forces in Iraq. There, he finally got his chance to practice what his followers liked to call the “new American way of war.”
Within a year of Petraeus’s ascension, the Sunni insurgents and the Al Qaeda hardliners had been subdued, and the innovative tactician was suddenly a national hero. According to Washington mythology, Petraeus’s counterinsurgency methods, together with Bush’s exquisitely timed “surge” of thirty thousand troops, finally allowed the Pentagon to extricate the United States from Iraq, and reverse the invasion’s rapid plunge into imperial folly.
Strangely, this myth also won the hearts of many antiwar liberals and Democrats, who seized on the humanitarian ethos that sparks counterinsurgency efforts as the antidote to the neocon model of unilaterally blundering into one “war of choice” after another. “All of them glommed onto this narrative,” Gian Gentile, an Iraq combat veteran and the author of Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency, told me. “Why? Because it maintains the idea that American wars in foreign lands still work. And the proof in the pudding was in the surge in Iraq.”
But for these liberal strategists, the proving ground for mature counterinsurgency techniques would be Afghanistan—the conflict that President Bush had sidestepped in favor of Iraq and that candidate Obama described as a war of necessity. By 2008, the turnaround was complete and counterinsurgency was now “the coin of the realm,” as Time sardonically put it.
Indeed, president Obama seized the earliest chance during his first year in office to launch his own “surge” in Afghanistan—and along with it, he embraced the hearts-and-minds strategy promoted by Petraeus and his new commander in Kabul, Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Flush from their latest success, the COINdinistas were riding high. David Kilcullen, the Australian Army officer who served as Petraeus’s senior counterinsurgency adviser in Iraq and later Afghanistan, began talking of a “Global COIN” to fight terrorism from Somalia to the Philippines, winning the admiration of CNN’s Peter Bergen and other prominent terrorism experts. A new era of warfare seemed to be upon us.
Hearts and Minds, My Ass
The stage was clearly set for Washington’s military wise men to project themselves, yet one more time, onto the vanguard of history. But the counterinsurgency bubble burst in remarkably short order. By 2012, the Taliban had returned to Afghanistan in force, and corruption was eroding the legitimacy of the country’s U.S.-backed president, Hamid Karzai. Obama, eager to create a peacetime legacy, began to turn away from the daunting challenge of building a viable government in Kabul; now the administration’s goal was simply to get U.S. forces the hell out. Around the same time, the president rejected a proposal from Petraeus—by now director of the CIA—to create a U.S.-trained army in Syria to support the rebellion against the Assad government. Rather than “boots on the ground,” the United States would seek to stomp out unwanted unrest in the Middle East via drones in the air. Hearts and minds would have to look after themselves.
COIN’s critics argued that the game was up. “The counterinsurgency moment has passed, and it’s been rejected both in the political and the military realm,” Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University, told me in 2014. “Back when the Petraeus reputation was at its height, there was an element that persuaded itself that global counterinsurgency somehow provided the template for future national security policy. But since then, the bloom is off the rose.”
In the centers of sober policy making, though, this emerging critical outlook wasn’t about to take hold. Under the tacit social contract that fuels the American national-security consensus, new conflicts will always create a new rationale for aggressive American action. The war in Syria worsened, Libya turned into a disaster, and the Islamic State, known as ISIS, spread its tentacles throughout the region and into Africa. In the wake of these debacles, the idea of mounting another counterinsurgency-type war has gained new currency and foreign-policy cachet. Gen. James Amos, the commandant of the marine corps, got the debate rolling in 2014 when he declared that the marines were “not done with counterinsurgency.” Last July, the army commander in the Pacific, Gen. Robert Brown, warned against “shifting away from COIN,” adding “we made that mistake post-Vietnam.”
Around the same time, the Obama administration appointed Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, a veteran of the counterinsurgency campaign in both Iraq and Afghanistan, to be commander of the U.S. campaign against ISIS. Some of the strongest voices in favor of the adoption of COIN in 2009 advised Hillary Clinton in her failed 2016 presidential campaign. And the highly visible role of Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, a COIN specialist and former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, in president-elect Trump’s national security trust means that the idea of counterinsurgency could storm once more into the forefront of U.S. policy.
But is COIN a viable strategy? What is its history, beyond the glossy descriptions peddled by its enthusiasts in the military and the liberal power elite? And how and why was D.C. sold on counterinsurgency in the first place? Here’s the inside story of how a group of ambitious generals, liberal think tanks, and lefty journalists sold both the Bush and Obama administrations on their beguiling dream of a more perfect intervention.
The Real Vietnam Syndrome
American military leaders first adopted mass-scale counterinsurgency—in its official, Pentagon-branded guise—in Vietnam. There it became indelibly linked to two especially cruel initiatives in a war steeped in imperial brutality. First, the “strategic hamlets” built by U.S. forces to separate Vietnamese peasants from local guerrillas drove a destructive wedge into the nationalist insurgency at the heart of Vietnam’s civil war. In the process, the strategic-hamlet program made many ardent recruits for the communist-led forces of the National Liberation Front—the original insurgency in South Vietnam.
A group of ambitious generals, liberal think tanks, and lefty journalists sold both Bush and Obama on their beguiling dream of a more perfect intervention.
Second, the Phoenix Program, the CIA’s capture-and-kill operation that assassinated more than twenty thousand people, made it painfully clear that the United States had precious little interest in promoting independence or self-government for the Vietnamese. After the 1975 collapse in Saigon, COIN was buried, the forgotten detritus of America’s bitter loss in Southeast Asia.
But while Vietnam was where war planners embraced modern counterinsurgency doctrine most fully, it was hardly the first time American forces experimented with the idea. U.S. experience in defeating insurgencies goes back to America’s first colonization program at the outset of the twentieth century—the invasion and subjugation of the Muslim-dominated southern Philippines in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War. This intervention, like the Indian Wars that preceded it, was presented as a humanitarian attempt to win over a local population infected (in the Filipinos’ case) by the fever dream of nationalist independence. But this foray into counterinsurgency warfare was a decidedly violent affair, characterized by water torture, mass killing, and forced relocations.
According to State Department statistics, the war killed forty-two hundred Americans, twenty thousand Filipinos, and two hundred thousand civilians; of the victims, fifteen thousand were Muslims. Memories of this campaign were revived by Donald Trump at a campaign rally last winter, when, as reported by PolitiFact, he “offered a counterinsurgency parable” featuring U.S. Army Gen. John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing, one of the leaders of the pacification campaign. Trump bragged that Pershing was so tough that he dipped bullets in pig’s blood before executing dozens of insurgents—an intolerable insult to Muslims but apparently an indication of the tactics Trump might adopt now that he has been entrusted with the task of taking on ISIS.
The anecdote was deemed apocryphal by fact-checkers, but at a mythopoeic level, Trump wasn’t wrong to adopt it as a set piece illustrating the vicious course of the U.S. occupation of the Philippines; his main mistake, of course, was to cite it approvingly. But in this, he has good company: in a stunningly frank admission in 2009, Michael O’Hanlon, a COIN proponent at the Brookings Institution, praised the U.S. effort in the Philippines for exemplifying “proper counterinsurgency concepts such as emphasis on protection of the population.” The campaign, he argued, “was conducted with restraint and reasonable precision in the application of force” (those two-hundred-thousand-plus dead Filipinos might disagree).
The next phase of COIN development came after World War I, during America’s ascendancy as a global empire. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, U.S. Marines were deployed to Central America, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and even China, usually on behalf of U.S. oil companies, banking and investment houses, and agricultural interests. (Marine Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler famously reminded Americans about the true beneficiaries of these adventures, concluding, “In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.”) Despite the obvious imperial aims of these interventions, the lessons for future U.S. strategy were codified in 1940 in the Marines’ Small Wars Manual. Sixty years later, according to Marine historian Dick Camp, that booklet “solidified and expanded the doctrine for counterinsurgency in the late twentieth century” and was assigned to officers of the 1st Marine Division before they deployed to Iraq in 2003. It’s no accident that the publication of record for the counterinsurgency enthusiasts of today is called Small Wars Journal.
In the interval between the Second World War and JFK’s hearts-and-minds offensives in Vietnam, the United States accrued additional COIN bona fides vicariously, through the colonial misadventures of its wartime allies Britain and France. Today’s COINdinistas still reverently cite the important lessons they learned from the British suppression of a communist-led rebellion of ethnic Chinese in Malaya in the 1950s (where the concept of strategic hamlets was first introduced) and from the French attempt to defeat an indigenous Islamic uprising in Algeria during the 1950s and early 1960s (which became a stupendously misguided model for U.S. commanders in Iraq).
The United States will “continue to see much more of these small wars” in the future, John Nagl, a retired Army officer and one of the intellectual architects of today’s COIN revival, predicted in 2014. Therefore, “we should draw upon the history of successful counterinsurgency campaigns,” including those in the Philippines, Malaya, and Algeria. He added one caveat: “All the while we should be understanding that the world is far different than it once was.” Unfortunately, when it came to the Middle East, that lesson was swept under the rug.
Three COINS in a Fountain
The resurgence of COIN in the 2000s, and particularly in Afghanistan, was largely the work of three groups: Petraeus and his fellow COINdinistas; the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), the think tank of choice for the Obama administration and hardline Democrats of a Realpolitik persuasion; and a small band of liberals and leftist reporters who opposed Bush’s invasion of Iraq and lionized Petraeus and the new military ideology he represented.
Ultimately, this strange-bedfellows campaign for a hearts-and-minds strategy in Afghanistan was a mirror image of the neocon media offensive that paved the way for Bush’s preemptive invasion of Iraq. But where the Iraq con job was carried out by the right-wing D.C. establishment and its media enablers, the COIN job of the early aughts was chiefly the brainchild of liberal institutions and policy hands. In each case, though, the end result was the same: more blood, more destruction, and a legacy of war that will leave the Middle East an imperial battleground well into this century.
Petraeus had been obsessed with Vietnam since his days at West Point. William Knowlton, his commandant (and future father-in-law) had been a senior official with the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support group, or CORDS. This outfit was a joint venture between the CIA and the U.S. Agency for International Development that would go on to direct the counterinsurgency in South Vietnam. (The CORDS program was far from a rousing success, but Army leaders would emulate its organizing conceits and operational strategies in Central America and Iraq.)
In the 1980s, while at West Point, Petraeus met Nagl, an Army lieutenant colonel whose 2005 book, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam, is the bible of today’s COIN movement. Over the next decade, they and other like-minded military thinkers began reaching out to academics and human rights groups to marshal intellectual support for a new kind of foreign policy that could accomplish ambitious military objectives while staying true to American values of democracy and human rights.
The initial discussions began around the concept of “low-intensity conflict,” a popular term in the 1990s for the smaller-scale interventions Pentagon strategists expected after the big-power confrontations of the Cold War. They picked up speed after the disastrous Battle of Mogadishu in 1993, when a U.S. Special Forces team was ambushed by Somalian militias during a UN-sanctioned snatch-and-grab operation—underscoring the perils of humanitarian interventions. Another key event was President Clinton’s 1994 invasion of Haiti (where Petraeus was chief of operations), which included a massive civil and economic component funded in part by USAID.
Armed Social Work
If these types of U.S. interventions were becoming the norm, Petraeus and his followers reasoned, the military would have to adapt by incorporating social programs into their tactics. The idea was to focus not merely on the logistics of conquest, but also on the far more saleable (and politically palatable) mission of improving the lives of the people they were supposed to “protect,” whether in East Africa, the Caribbean, or the Middle East. Based on their understanding of past wars, the COINdinistas argued that U.S. forces could defeat an insurgency only by “outgoverning” the enemy—that is, by providing enough assistance to persuade the people that the government chosen for them by the United States, be it Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam or Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, was superior to anything offered by the fighting insurgents, be they the Viet Cong or the Taliban. “Employ money as a weapons system,” Petraeus once wrote of the strategy. “Money can be ‘ammunition.’” Kilcullen, the Global COIN advocate, put it this way: counterinsurgency, he said, was “armed social work.”
Just as the CORDS crowd in Vietnam had brought in academics and think-tank intellectuals to help subdue their insurgency, the Petraeus group found allies for future counterinsurgency campaigns at Harvard, the Brookings Institution, and in the media. One of Petraeus’s early recruits was Sarah Sewall, whom he’d met in discussions about Haiti while she was serving as the first deputy assistant secretary of defense for peacekeeping. She went on to direct Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and later joined the Obama administration as undersecretary of state, where her job portfolio included “civilian security.” “There was a constellation of different groups—the ‘expert class,’ mainstream journalists, and a policy contingent of liberal interventionists—who wanted intervention to work,” says Gentile, who led an Army combat brigade in Baghdad after the invasion and later taught history at West Point.
By 2004, the Pentagon had gotten directly involved in the process by organizing a conference on what it was calling “irregular warfare” at the giant Marine base in Quantico, VA. Petraeus, as one of the organizers, “called up the older generation of spies and Special Forces who’d done counterinsurgency in El Salvador and Vietnam,” the journalist Fred Kaplan wrote in The Insurgents, his absorbing but gratingly uncritical account of Petraeus and the rise of COIN. Detractors of the movement were less impressed. “They looked at all these failed counterinsurgencies and decided that we knew why they failed and put together a doctrine about why we would win,” says Christine Fair, a Georgetown professor who has frequently squared off with COIN advocates over the use of drone strikes in Pakistan.
Lovely Little Wars
Kilcullen, one of the stars of the Quantico conference, became, with Petraeus and Nagl, a critical third apostle of the new millennial COIN gospel. He was a retired Australian Army officer with a PhD in anthropology and had spent several years in Indonesia, which was ruled for decades by a murderous but fiercely anti-communist general named Suharto. During the 1990s, Kilcullen was an adviser to Kopassus, a dreaded unit of Indonesia’s Special Forces that had a reputation of extreme brutality going back decades (its record was so horrific that Congress banned U.S. training of Indonesian soldiers for more than ten years). During one of his tours, he encountered Islamic militants on the island of Java opposed to the central government and developed an appreciation for the grievances that lie behind guerrilla wars.
Those experiences, and his writings about them, caught the attention of the Bush administration. In 2004, Kilcullen was invited to advise the Pentagon by Paul Wolfowitz, a former U.S. ambassador to Indonesia and then deputy secretary of defense (they were connected through Nagl, who was a military assistant to Wolfowitz at the time). After his star turn at Petraeus’s conference at Quantico, Kilcullen went on to serve as special adviser for counterinsurgency to secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and as Petraeus’s senior COIN adviser in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Kilcullen’s special contribution was to understand the difference between hardcore jihadis and “accidental guerrillas”—a phrase used in the title of his popular 2009 book. “Kilcullen was about making stricter distinctions between those who needed to be confronted militarily and those who didn’t,” Spencer Ackerman, who covered Kilcullen as a military blogger and is now a national security reporter with the Guardian, told me. “He was by far the most intellectually dexterous of this crowd. His writings were probably the most direct about counterinsurgency as (he probably wouldn’t use this term) an imperial foreign policy. And that was getting short shrift in the media.”
But it certainly was noticed inside the Pentagon. In 2005, Kilcullen and Nagl were asked to write a key section of the Defense Department’s Quadrennial Defense Review, in which they described COIN as a “potentially long-duration irregular warfare campaign.” A year later, in 2006, the Pentagon sponsored another conference at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, where Petraeus had been named commanding general (in charge of the Army’s Command and General Staff College) after returning from serving in Iraq. He underscored the new union between the military and humanitarian interventionists by cosponsoring the event with Sewall and Harvard’s Carr Center. They invited their fellow COINdinistas to come together to draft a new guide for the counterinsurgencies to come.
Their discussions culminated in the December 2006 publication of the famous Army-Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual. This key strategy directive would become the basis for U.S. nation-building policy in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Nagl was one of its primary authors, but the other contributors made up a virtual Who’s Who of the COIN movement—and later, of Obama’s Pentagon and CNAS. Among them were Kilcullen, Sewall (who wrote the introduction), and Michèle Flournoy, a former Defense Department official from the Clinton administration and a professor at the Pentagon’s National Defense University. Kilcullen later wrote the civilian handbook that USAID officials and contractors used during the occupation phases of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. All this work paved the way for the hearts-and-minds offensive in Iraq, beginning in February 2007, when Petraeus, with Kilcullen at his side, was dispatched to lead the surge.
Like the strategic-hamlets initiative in Vietnam, the Petraeus-Kilcullen plan laid out a combination of “population-centric” social projects and lethal force. A key innovation was the “clear, hold, and build” approach, which was devoted to seizing territory and fiercely defending it from insurgent influence—an approach that was famously adopted by forces in Anbar Province during the initial stage of the war. But for the most part, clear, hold, and build was a grueling hunt and kill operation, masterminded by Petraeus and Kilcullen and assisted by intercepts of enemy communications by the National Security Agency.
Journalist Peter Maass has dubbed these operations part of the overall “Salvadorization of Iraq.” Indeed, in an ominous turn, the U.S. Command brought in former U.S. Special Forces personnel who’d fought the dirty wars in Central America to create what effectively became U.S.-funded death squads to go after insurgents. Kilcullen’s intention was to co-opt the Sunnis, who’d led the initial phase of the insurgency; but some of them had records of such brutality that even U.S. commanders were appalled by America’s new allies (some were “brutal gangsters, monsters,” one general told COIN enthusiast Kaplan).
Still, most reporters bought into what the fast-talking COINdinistas depicted as a model deployment of American “smart power”—with a few significant exceptions. “We took the Shiites’ side in a civil war, armed them to the teeth, and suckered the Sunnis into thinking we’d help them out too,” the late Michael Hastings, who covered the war for Rolling Stone, once wrote. “It was a brutal enterprise—over eight hundred Americans died during the surge, while hundreds of thousands of Iraqis lost their lives during a sectarian conflict that Petraeus’s policies fueled.”
The Golden Surge
After the Iraq surge, with Petraeus moving up the chain of command, Kilcullen became the pet counterinsurgency thinker for the D.C. media and military establishment. Kilcullen’s exploits in Iraq, Pakistan, and other war zones were soon splashed all over the liberal media, from The New Yorker to MSNBC. Thomas Ricks, the former military correspondent for the Washington Post who would later work with Kilcullen at CNAS, was one of his most prominent hagiographers: in a gushing 2009 article in Foreign Policy, he lionized Kilcullen as the “Crocodile Dundee of Counterinsurgency.” Ackerman, who covered Iraq for his own blog and Wired’s Danger Room, did more than any liberal writer to burnish Kilcullen’s reputation. In 2006, he helped created Kilcullen’s bad-boy image by quoting him denouncing Bush’s invasion of Iraq as “fucking stupid.” Then, in dozens of articles over the next four years, he championed Kilcullen as the leading light of “the Counterinsurgents,” as he called the COIN revivalists in a mammoth series he completed just before Obama’s inauguration.
This PR offensive soon bore fruit: in 2008, CNAS offered Kilcullen a national platform that helped him and his fellow COINdinistas drum up support for the expanded war in Afghanistan.
CNAS was founded in 2007 by Michèle Flournoy and other veterans of the Clinton administration seeking to reclaim what they called “the pragmatic center” in national security. “CNAS was a golden opportunity to stand up something that would allow Democrats to be tough, to be hawkish, to be smart again about war,” says Matthew Hoh, a former Marine who had served in Iraq and worked for the State Department in Afghanistan, and who later took on CNAS when he lobbied against the Afghanistan “surge.”
CNAS was also funded by the nation’s biggest and most powerful military contractors, including several companies that would greatly benefit from the counterinsurgency war. Among them were SAIC, one of the nation’s largest military companies, which in 2012 won a five-year, $400 million deal with the Army to supply technology and intelligence services to U.S. military commands and Special Forces, mostly in Afghanistan. According to a contract document I obtained, SAIC’s portfolio included “expeditionary warfare, irregular warfare, special operations and stabilization and reconstruction operations.”
DynCorp International, another CNAS donor, went on to become the largest single contractor in Afghanistan. Other CNAS funders ranged from big prime contractors such as Booz Allen Hamilton and Raytheon to more than a dozen smaller, focused firms, such as L-3 MPRI and ManTech International. One CNAS donor, Mission Essential Personnel, eventually became the largest supplier of translators and cultural advisers to U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The company had particularly close ties with the COINdinistas: in 2009, Kilcullen, Nagl, and Sewall were all named to its advisory board. MEP went on to win millions of dollars in contracts from the war, including a $170 million contract with USAID in 2015 and, this past summer, an $8.7 million contract with Army intelligence.
With all this money in play, the new COINdinista establishment started to resemble a D.C.-based interlocking directorate, nimbly moving from public service into corporate-board or think-tank duty, and then back again, without missing a beat. In 2008, Flournoy was appointed undersecretary of defense for policy, the number three spot at the Pentagon. Shortly afterward, Nagl assumed her former post as president of CNAS. He brought Kilcullen in as a senior fellow and adviser, beginning the Australian’s six-year tenure at the organization. (He, too, served on the CNAS board of advisers.) In addition, Nagl hired Andrew Exum, a former U.S. Army captain who served in Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks and later led Army Rangers there on special operations missions. He’d worked with Kilcullen as a member of General McChrystal’s strategic assessment team that visited the region for Obama in the summer of 2009.
Kilcullen and Exum became the primary authors of a CNAS policy paper called “Triage” that would serve as the blueprint for the architects of Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan. As usual, the “people” of Afghanistan were the key focus of a policy designed to end the Taliban insurgency once and for all. In “Triage,” Kilcullen and Exum endorsed a “truly population-centric COIN” in Afghanistan to be supported by a “civilian surge” led by USAID. CNAS unveiled these findings in grand fashion at the think tank’s annual meeting on June 11, 2009, at Washington’s opulent Willard Hotel, where General Petraeus himself was the guest of honor. Thus was the COINdinista circle of policy insiderism elegantly closed, in the heady early days of the Obama administration—and in a suitably bespoke and self-congratulatory setting.
Enter Networking, Stage Left
That fall, the Kilcullen-Exum paper also served as the foundation of a massive lobbying campaign that launched at the behest of CNAS, the Center for American Progress, and the Brookings Institution. This liberal charm offensive sought to convince Congress and the White House to sign off on the counterinsurgency.
A counterinsurgency adviser in Iraq told me, “I don’t see you as a real reporter. I view you as a conspiracy theorist.”
This was also, fortuitously, the moment when the left press in Washington—and its idolization of Kilcullen—came to the fore. One incident from 2009 captures this liberal-choreographed phase of the COIN revival in nearly all its particulars. That February, at the height of the internal debate about how the new Obama administration could get its hands around the occupation of Afghanistan, Ackerman mentioned on his blog that Kilcullen was having dinner that night with vice president Joe Biden, heretofore a critic of the COIN strategy.
Twenty-four hours later, Rachel Maddow had Kilcullen on her show on MSNBC and opened her obsequious interview by mentioning the Biden dinner. She contrasted Kilcullen to the “merry bands of Iraq war architects” and hailed him as a seasoned policy thinker “more valuable than a pile of telestrators for understanding what we are doing in Afghanistan and what we’re going to do next.” She asked no questions whatsoever about the history of COIN in Vietnam, its roots in the French and British struggles against their collapsing empires, or the sickening reality of the death squads that made the Iraq “surge” possible.
In short, the message was clear: Iraq was a bad war, Afghanistan was good—or at least could be made over into a good war by adopting some worthy goals for the occupation. By the fall of 2009, President Obama, supported by secretary of state Hillary Clinton, sided with the COIN advocates and deployed thirty-three thousand more troops in Afghanistan. They carried out the plans put forward in the CNAS paper to the letter. “The core of that mission was, in fact, counterinsurgency, albeit with fairly tight geographical and time limits,” Robert Gates recalled in Duty, his 2015 book about his years as secretary of defense.
Anybody at the Pentagon with misgivings simply fell in line, says Tony Shaffer, a retired Army lieutenant colonel with a background in Special Operations who lobbied against the COIN strategy for the conservative Center for Advanced Defense Studies. In 2009, he was advising Paul Brinkley, a deputy undersecretary of defense with authority over stabilization operations. “I’ll say this on the record, and I don’t think he would mind,” Shaffer told me. “Brinkley was completely overwhelmed by Flournoy and the COIN mafia.”
To Hoh, who had just arrived in Afghanistan’s Zabul province to run a State Department Provincial Reconstruction Team during the 2009 surge, the COIN plan was a travesty. “Triage,” he says now, “was a recipe for escalation.”
“At the end of my first tour in Iraq, I knew counterinsurgency was bullshit—that somehow you were going to bridge all kinds of sectarian, or religious, or tribal divides, that you would dispel any grievances against an invader or an occupier, by giving out cash and trying to be nice and putting people like you in charge of the government,” he says. “It just opens the way for a lot more contractors, more services, and more positions for quote unquote ‘smart’ people who know about war. And I didn’t want any part of that.” In October, he quit the State Department and became, at age thirty-six, the first U.S. official to resign over the Afghanistan War.
The Future of War
In the end, it was Hoh, and not any of the pro-war intellectuals and liberals, who was proven right about counterinsurgency and its deadly impact on the people it was supposed to protect. By 2014, the Taliban were back with a vengeance, and Afghanistan was mired in the worst violence the country had seen since the initial U.S. invasion in 2001. And sadly for Americans, more than 75 percent of U.S. casualties in Afghanistan occurred in the years after the surge and its COIN component was introduced.
Clearly the counterinsurgency, its economic incentives, and the U.S. pledge to “outgovern” the enemy had failed. And what about all that cash? According to the congressionally mandated Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), corruption by civilian contractors in Afghanistan cost the United States at least $60 billion. The flagrant waste “undermined the U.S. mission in Afghanistan by fueling grievances against the Afghan government and chanelling material support to the insurgency,” SIGAR concluded in a massive report issued this September. Even counterinsurgency proponents seemed to agree. “Karzai used to tell me, ‘When I see big fancy SUVs driving around filled with contractors, I see corruption,’” General McChrystal said in a presentation on COIN to the Brookings Institution in 2014.
By this time, the top guns of the counterinsurgency movement had gone silent. Petraeus, after rising to the directorship of the CIA, was caught sharing classified information with his mistress and in 2015 pled guilty to related misdemeanor charges. Nagl left Washington altogether to become principal of a boys’ school outside of Philadelphia, emerging in Washington once in 2014 to tout his latest book, Knife Fights. Their absence left Kilcullen as the sole “guru of counterinsurgency,” as Noah Shachtman, the executive editor of The Daily Beast, dubbed him in 2011.
True to the playbook of D.C.-based warmaking-for-profit, Kilcullen made the most of his ascension into guruhood by launching a consultancy, Caerus Global Solutions, to monetize the counterinsurgency movement. Within months, he had flipped the advisory work he did for McChrystal and Petraeus into a stream of lucrative contracts from the Pentagon, the State Department, USAID, and the NATO-led International Assistance Force in Afghanistan. In 2011, his first year in business, his company’s gross sales were $4.5 million, 97 percent of which came from Pentagon contracts, according to a government audit of Caerus I obtained. Most of that money was devoted to advisory work for ISAF on counterinsurgency and measuring the “stability” U.S. forces had theoretically created. One of his partners was MEP, the big CNAS donor. In 2013, Caerus and MEP teamed up on a Defense Intelligence Agency contract for Afghanistan that involved Caerus analyzing metadata obtained from NSA intercepts for U.S. “combat intelligence teams” in Afghanistan, according to documents I obtained.
But in 2014, Kilcullen’s company came under the scrutiny of the Defense Security Service, the investigative arm of the assistant secretary of defense for intelligence. I later learned that, while working with Petraeus in Afghanistan on a surveillance project funded by the Pentagon, someone in his company had accessed classified information that Kilcullen, as an Australian national, may not have been cleared to use. He denied any breach of classification rules, and told me for good measure, “I don’t see you as a real reporter. I view you as a conspiracy theorist.” But the breach and the audit of his company were confirmed by the Defense Security Service itself, as well as by one of Kilcullen’s business partners.
After the incident, Kilcullen’s media appearances and public-speaking gigs dropped dramatically. For a while, he shifted his focus to Australia, where he’s become one of the fiercest advocates for an expanded Australian military role—together with the United States—in the war against ISIS. By 2015, he’d returned to the think-tank world at the New America Foundation, where he works with his “Global COIN” ally Peter Bergen on an initiative on the “future of war.” And lately, all three men—Petraeus, Nagl, and Kilcullen—have been back in the debate over the future of U.S. military policy.
Up with People
Another U.S.-brokered hearts-and-minds campaign seems most likely in Syria, where U.S. Special Forces are training some of the so-called moderates within the coalition of terrorist and resistance groups fighting the Assad government. As we know, the initial proposal for this initiative came from Petraeus. Kilcullen, too, openly backed the plan, and in 2014 testified about it before the Senate.
“We need to telegraph our willingness to use military means to force that outcome,” Kilcullen said. Even some of the extremist jihadi groups fighting Assad would welcome U.S. support “if we could create a more stable and peaceful environment in Syria.” That sounded an awful lot like COIN.
Petraeus also joined the emerging chorus of COIN revivalists in and around Syria when he took to the Washington Post op-ed section in August to lay out U.S. goals in regions controlled by ISIS. American forces, he wrote, should “ensure post-conflict security; reconstruction and, above all, governance that is representative of and responsive to the people.”
He went deeper at a forum on the future of Afghanistan at the COIN-friendly Brookings Institution in early October. Appearing with a group of former diplomats he’d worked with during the counterinsurgencies he’d directed, Petraeus called for a “comprehensive approach” to the region to counter the influence of the Taliban and ISIS. “It’s always been true that what we were seeking to do was to help the Afghans develop the capacity to secure themselves and to govern themselves,” he said. “That’s been the core of our effort, and it has always been that you could not do this with just a counter-terrorism force operation.” Nodding to his fellow panelists, he added: “this is what each of us participated in in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
To the people. Governing themselves. There they were, those old aphorisms of “protecting the population” from “the enemy,” an idea that stretched back to the U.S. incursion in the Philippines and that served as the watchword for brave new waves of COINdinistas from Vietnam to Iraq. Moreover, Petraeus’s words closely echoed those of Lt. Gen. Flynn, a possible pick for national security adviser in the Trump administration.
In a controversial paper for CNAS in 2010, Flynn sharply criticized U.S. intelligence agencies for focusing too much on counter-terrorism and killing insurgents—tactics he called “anti-insurgency”—and ignoring the needs of soldiers and commanders fighting a hearts-and-minds campaign on the ground. “Employing effective counterinsurgency methods is not an option, but a necessity,” he wrote. He tried to strengthen his point by quoting Gen. McChrystal: “When he states, ‘the conflict will be won by persuading the population, not by destroying the enemy,’ it is not just a slogan, but an expression of his intent,” Flynn wrote. “Too much of the intelligence community is deaf to these directions.”
But any repeat of what the United States tried in Iraq or Afghanistan is bound to fail, critics say. COIN “is premised on a false strategy that a foreign occupying force like the U.S. Army and Marines could put itself on the ground in a relatively short amount of time and do nation-building at the barrel of a gun and outgovern other groups in that place,” Gentile told me. “For us to make that work, we’d have to stay there for generations. We’d basically have to do British imperialism at the second half of the nineteenth century.”
Strangely, the COINdinistas themselves admit as much. In 2014, I questioned Nagl after he read from his latest book Knife Fights at Politics and Prose, a bookstore in the heart of liberal Washington. I asked him whether the United States basically assumed the white man’s burden of imperial conquest from the Brits in the aftermath of World War II. Of course we did, he replied. But the key difference is, he explained, that “the United States is a very unusual empire because it is a democracy.” He then offered a striking analogy. COIN, he said, “has been around since the Roman Empire but has become gradually less violent while still retaining a focus on killing enemies which you can identify.” For that reason, “we need to hold onto [its] lessons, because COIN won’t go away.”
That’s insane, said Matt Hoh, who blew the whistle on counterinsurgency back in 2009. “Of course COIN is the strategy of empire,” he told me in an email. “It’s always been such. The Romans, two thousand years ago, allowed conquered peoples to keep their gods—that was a COIN strategy. Why these guys now think that what we are doing is somehow different, more moral, or smarter, is intellectually, historically, and morally dishonest.”
Hoh also appealed to the more recent historical record:
Look, the French flat-out lost in Algeria. The British “won” by forcibly migrating ethnic Chinese by the hundreds of thousands, and then left Malaya. Before that, we killed hundreds of thousands of Filipinos, “civilizing” them with money. And what did we “win”? You just can’t conveniently forget the atrocities and the mass human sufferings you inflicted in order to justify wars, to color and shade maps like a game of Risk. In the end, counterinsurgency is madness.
Or, as Colonel Kurtz puts it at the end of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, after he’s taken the premises of COIN to their logical extreme: “the horror.”