After failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s time for a new understanding of counterinsurgency.
With the apparent lack of progress and success in Afghanistan and Iraq, counterinsurgency (COIN) has fallen out of favor within the political and military establishments in the U.S. and elsewhere. Regardless of whether these failures were due to erroneous implementation or theoretical shortcomings, COIN is no longer considered “hot” in strategic circles. However, one should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. There are elements of COIN worth preserving and retaining for future operations. By modifying our understanding of COIN using insight from security and peace-building literature, a revised concept can be developed which could inform future irregular wars more efficiently than current doctrine. We call it the stakeholder-centric COIN.
An insurgency is first and foremost a struggle for political power over the allegiance of the population in a given territory. It is a method employed by a non-state actor to challenge the existing political authority. Counterinsurgency, on the other hand, is defined as “military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological, and civic actions taken by a government to defeat insurgency,” as stated by the U.S. Field Manual 3-24. The concept of legitimacy is clearly the centerpiece of FM 3-24 and defined as the primary objective of any operation. A legitimate government is understood as one that rules with the consent of the governed, providing security and basic services. This has inspired the term population-centric COIN.
COIN has been widely criticized both for its theoretical shortcomings and for its failure to provide victory in Afghanistan and Iraq. Critics have called for a more traditional military approach, arguing that the focus should be on the insurgents, not the causes of insurgency. This has been termed the enemy-centric approach. However, as we see it, the enemy-centric approach is unsustainable: by seeking a purely military solution it ignores the local politics at play and its importance for a future peace.
Others criticize COIN for being Western-biased in its understanding of governance and legitimacy. The attempt at imposing state structures (such as the infamous “government in a box”) from outside was unrealistic at best. More fundamentally, COIN’s focus on the “the population” as the source of stability and legitimacy is problematic. The idea that the power and legitimacy flows from the civilian population and up to the leaders is naïve – at least in traditional or patrimonial societies. The power is not in the hands of the civilian population but in their various societal leaders. Hence, a middle ground is needed between the population- and enemy-centric approaches. To this end, we can find insights from outside the traditional military and strategic scholars.
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