#learn power wednesdays: The COIN era – The war(s) to end all wars?


To continue a week entirely decked out in camo, #learn power wednesdays is taking a hard look at the military and its utility as vector of power these days.

Looking back on the last 15 years of contemporary Western warfare, one is struck by an apparent paradox: Never in human history has war – in Afghanistan, Iraq, and most recently, in Libya – been waged from such a position of material and technical superiority. Yet never in human history has so little been achieved by investing so much, be it in terms of treasure, political capital or human life (staggeringly, among the civilian population in theaters of operation, and significantly, what concerns those countries sending soldiers).

For the West, the consequences of having pursued above foreign interventions are stark: They have devalued the military as a tool in the pursuit of political goals. Waging a very specific war (counter insurgency-counter network-counter terrorism) and failing at it has, at least temporarily, ended war as a political option for the West. This feeds into a seemingly self-fulfilling narrative of Western/ European decline at the root of current strategic paralysis, increasing the risk of military confrontation in the future.

General Paul Selva, Vice Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff quoted above is of course correct to highlight the overall superior shape of the US military, especially in comparison with its rivals and allies (click here for a graph on military spending, to get a first rough impression ). But General Selva will probably find it hard to dispute the analysis of another General, Vincent Desportes, France, who points out a very uncomfortable fact – What good is military superiority, if you are unable to win wars?

The inability to win wars, and the resulting war fatigue is of course not mono-causal, nor is it perfectly evenly distributed among those countries I have conveniently lumped together as “the West”. But foreign interventions that included elements of counterinsurgency or counter-terrorism in civil wars (or, in the case of Iraq, and Libya, creating or unleashing civil war) have played a big role in seemingly eroding military might as an instrument of power.

In January, Niccolò Petrelli (University of Leeds) gave a most insightful presentation as part of a series of seminars organised by CERI (Sciences Po’s IR research centre) on the military as diplomatic tool. In a session devoted to anti-terrorism, under the heading “Technology, Counter-Terrorism
and Third Party Interventions in Civil Wars: Lessons from 14 Years of
”, Petrelli presented the current brand of American counter insurgency, as well as evidence that neither in Iraq, nor in Afghanistan, it had achieved its objective, the deinstitutionalisation of terrorist networks (click here for his presentation).


Screenshot from Niccolò Petrelli’s presentation “Technology, Counter-Terrorism
and Third Party Interventions in Civil Wars: Lessons from 14 Years of
War”, January 2016

So what is counterinsurgency’s (COIN’s) new flavour? It seems to be inspired by past experiences, namely, the war in Algeria. It is worthwhile to read up on how potentially wrong lessons were learned by recruiting French military personnel to American military institutions in the 1960s and -70s. It would also be important to go back much further, to explore historical roots, such as American counter-insurgency in the Philippines in the 19th century, for example.
Current COIN focuses on counter-network
operations, turbocharged with contemporary means of intelligence gathering and communication. The result is a fusion of intelligence and operations in a continuous cyclical feedback loop. And yes, it has a snazzy acronym, F3EA, which stands for Find, Fix, Finish, Exploit and Analyse. You find and fix terrorist suspects to either kill them (Finish) or to extract intelligence from them (Exploit), which you then analyse and feed back into the cycle of operations. So far, so clean, so theoretically effective.

As Petrelli shows, the Americans and their allies can hardly be accused of  diddling. In Iraq, they ran about 200 of such F3EA ops per
month, which resulted in approximately 15-20.000 dead. Afghanistan saw about 360 ops per month, totaling 2.000 dead. But what about its effectiveness –
did F3EA manage to de-institutionalise terrorist networks thereby prevailing in counter-insurgency? Did such operations deter and coerce potential terrorists? The results are damning: Only short term
effects were achieved, and insurgents/ terrorists were able to quickly regenerate fighting power.

Why did it fail?

As Petrelli shows, this new flavour of COIN does not work in a strategic context of civil war – the environment in itself is so hostile that deterrence is ineffective. It simply does not matter who kills you – foreign troops sent “to spread democracy”, or insurgents/ terrorists popping up or already present on the ground. Such operations also do not work in a context of limited war: Adversaries will simply stick it out as they know you have limited
resources at your disposal. The case in point is of course Afghanistan, where the Taliban have all the time in the world to wait out Western departure. Another important element is the traditional American over-reliance on superior technical means as a sure-fire way to win a war. All this points to a bigger policy failure: counter-network warfare was simply not conceptually and practically integrated into the broader operational and strategic context.

It is perhaps crucial to stress that responsibility falls squarely on the political side. It is
politicians who decided to intervene, and it is politicians who
green-lighted an unsuitable approach and left it unchallenged.


Echoes from Apocalypse Now

When engaging in counter-insurgency, it is very difficult to hang on to norms normally associated with Western democracy. War tends to be hell, inevitably blowing the thin veneer of civilisation to smithereens. But with COIN, you can get there even quicker, as you are sucked right into the heart of darkness: it is fiendishly difficult to have “the courage to maintain that line between legitimate and illegitimate violence (quote from NYT article below).
Suffice to say that authoritarian regimes are quite “successful” at
And why shouldn’t they be? They fight the traditional, Tamerlane way, making any opposition too
costly by simply exterminating a critical mass of those resisting. One can regret this, but we, as Western societies unfortunately cannot wage war the same way. Or can we? This debate needs to take place. At the very least, we need to be clear as to what we are getting into when engaging in any form of COIN: almost unavoidably, moral compromise.

What have been some of the strategic consequences of using Western military force in civil war contexts?

First and foremost, such foreign interventions have significantly eroded the utility of the military as a vector of power for statesmen and -women. The psychological consequences of failing to reach political goals, even when periodically reformulated, are significant. Thinking in terms of military power seems to be off the table for the moment, regardless as to whether current circumstances might demand it or not.

There are additional adverse consequences of Western warfare of the last 15 years. First among them an erosion of international law, both what concerns ius ad bellum (the right to wage war) and ius in bello (how to wage war). The principle of humanitarian intervention based on a “responsibility to protect” is all but discredited. What concerns respect for legal norms during military operations, humanitarian space, a space where neutral actors can intervene to come to the rescue of civilians has all but disappeared. The distinction between civilians and combatants is gone, to the extent that civilians have become part and parcel of military campaigns.


From the New York Times Article “Navy SEALs, a Beating Death and
Claims of a Cover-Up”
, 17.12.2015

Another side effect of COIN-counter network-counter terrorism seems to be an increased acceptance of torture in the American, and possibly in other Western armed forces. Torture has seeped from government-condoned CIA practice into the conduct of military operations. It has changed what is deemed acceptable with regards to both combatants and non-combatants for officers, NCOs, soldiers and private contractors in the process. To get a glimpse of counter insurgency realities on the ground, read the New York Times Article “Navy SEALs, a Beating Death and Claims of a Cover-Up.” An especially stomach-turning example of this phenomenon was the American attempt to quell the Sunni insurgency post-invasion of Iraq by organising South America-style death squads.
This development is relevant, as Western armed forces have worked hard to enshrine the interdiction of torture in an attempt to shield their own forces from such heinous practice in the spirit of reciprocal military ethics. I would argue that it is also corroding morale and unit cohesion.

And, at the danger of sounding like a sentimental sop, let’s not forget the human cost of Western foreign interventions, almost too horrible to fathom. They have left the Middle East in flames, with hundreds of thousands dead, and millions injured, displaced, and reduced to abject despair, with no end in sight. Afghanistan will most likely fall back into the hands of the Taliban, while Pakistan is sucked ever deeper into the vortex of Islamic radicalism. At the home front, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have created strains in civil-military relations. They also continue to be a social burden in terms of former and current servicemen and -women suffering from disabilities, as well as mental health issues.

Wielding the military as a vector of power in our hyper-competitive and interconnected world will demand much more strategic thinking and foresight than in evidence over the last 15 years. It is back-to-basics time: Understand yourself and your military, understand your enemy. Otherwise, warfare of the past decade and a half will indeed have ended Western wars – just not in a good way.

Johanna M

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