The Myth of Population-centric Counterinsurgency

Gentile_dl-vertical4I just sat in on a very interesting virtual presentation and Q&A session at the COIN Center at Ft Leavenworth with COL Gian Gentile…

He is a professor of military history at the United States Military Academy, West Point. COL Gentile has written and spoken extensively about the need to revise Army COIN doctrine (FM 3-24). He states “Population-centric COIN doctrine needs fundamental revision. The Army’s current fixation on COIN is a “straightjacket” that prevents thinking about alternative models of irregular conflict and, more importantly, encourages the atrophy of combined arms warfare skills.

A quick bio and summary of COL Gentile’s views can be found in Micah Zenko’s interview Ten What’s With…Col. Gian Gentile from June of this year.

This morning he discussed his belief that “…Population-centric COIN doctrine needs fundamental revision. The Army’s current fixation on COIN is a “straightjacket” that prevents thinking about alternative models of irregular conflict and, more importantly, encourages the atrophy of combined arms warfare skills…” Unfortunately, the session ended before I could copy’n’paste the insightful questions and comments out of the chat screen (hopefully I will be able to get them from someone who was a little faster than I), however here are some of the insights from COL Gentile:

“…learning and and adapting is not an output in itself – if an Army can do combined arms, then it should be all over ‘learning and adapting’…” Yes and no – it should be able to do combined arms well – no argument there – but the key enabler that may be drawn from combined arms that contributes to the irregular arena could very well be the ability to work and play well with others, not just from one’s own service, nation or even extant alliance but from those ‘strange bedfellows’ that irregular warfare seems to attract. I suppose I should also hammer the point home that combined arms is actually a joint construct, not simply all the land forces able to work and play well together.

“…the COIN ‘wave’ is perceived as the ‘new way’ of doing war which is just as wrong as the over-focus in the 80s on major conventional operations…” Agree totally with this but less with the implied statement that an Army that can do MCO well (combined arms?) can easily step into an irregular scenario. Well, it can step into one easily enough e.g. Russia in Afghanistan, the US and UK in Iraq: managing it is quite something else and I do think that one of the enduring lessons of OIF is that a force that is good, great even at MCO, can not easily step ‘down’ into an irregular environment without reroling and retraining. In 2004, when the Iraqi insurgency really went ballistic, the US Army was still clearly the last of the really great warfighting armies i.e. geared up and fully competent at major force-on-force corps- and army-level conventional warfare, the last of the big hitting sticks. Was that much use to it stepping from a general-led conflict to one focussed on corporals and captains? Not really, no  more than the UK’s belief that IT was still up there as a ‘big hitting stick’ and also a master of COIN – when it was no longer either…

“…FM 3-24 should be broken apart, delinked from the concept of pop-centricity and nation-building – too narrow an option – then consider operational methods of COIN to provide a range of options and approaches…” When all is said and done, FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency, a product of rare (at the time) cooperation between the US Army and the USMC, was the right doctrine for ‘the’ war at the time, specifically the irregular conflict that the US was ensnared in across Iraq – and it worked. Does this mean that it is inherently transferable to other irregular conflicts? Not even! One of the most vital but most ignored COIN truisms is that every campaign or potential campaign has to be assessed on its own merits. Doctrine must provide a range of options and considerations for thinking operators, not just be Checklist Warfare for Dummies

“…State-building is not a key part of COIN – maybe the military could just do interdiction and disruption of insurgent forces…” This could just be as drawn-out and open-ended – is then part of the problem that we talk about COIN when we mean something else under the IW umbrella….? This also directly contradicts his answer to the question below in regard to whole of government and comprehensive approaches.

“…Essential question of strategy…” Ergo the right tools for the job; ergo identifying the core issues and addressing those via whatever is the necessary approach, i.e. Diplomatic, Informational, Military or Economic (DIME) being the Big Four lines of operation at the strategic level, noting, of course, that the strategic level extends well outside of the military which is, as the Dead Germans clearly identified, just another instrument of national power…

“…COG is not automatic but something to be discovered…” Oh so true…centres of gravity are not always – if at all – thing that can be discovered and targeted during endless planning sessions. pre-identified COGs, like ‘the plan’, often survive barely past the first rounds going downrange post-H Hour…

I was surprised by his answer to the question “Is part of the problem that the military feels that it must fill the (perceived?) vacuum left by non-engagement by other agencies, host nation, government and non-govt?” in that the answer was no, nature of the beast is that the military must/should do this unless the nation has mobilised fully (in war v at war) a la WW2…this seems to contradict COL Gentile’s stand that we are going too far down the population-centric path – if we are going to pick up this additional role we would need an army that is much more than “…able to do combined arms well…”

While I agree totally with COL Gentile that COIN is not the new war and that ‘old wars’ will still be popular, and that FM 3-24 is not the new FM 3-0 or MCDP 1-0, I found him a little confusing this morning: on one hand, he states that the military should be, in the absence of national mobilisation, steeping in to fill OGA/NGO role i.e. the population-centric nation-building that he decries; on the other, state and nation building is not what the military should be doing a la “…maybe the military could just do interdiction and disruption of insurgent forces…”

These are discussions that we need to have as FM 3-24 commences its Army review at Ft Leavenworth and the USMC gear up to develop their own, more littorally-focussed USMC-specific version; and as we all face major budget reviews in which the voices of the COINdinistas may be heard as the more fiscally-‘do-able’…

MCDP 1-0

I mentioned this publication above – the Marines have just released a significantly updated version of this capstone document…from Small Wars

Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication (MCDP) 1-0, Marine Corps Operations, has been revised and is now posted at the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, Combat Development and Integration Division’s webpage.  The original edition, developed just prior to 9/11, reflected language and constructs prevalent within joint doctrine at that time. The revision discusses the use of smaller MAGTFs and other nonstandard formations that are increasingly employed across the range of military operations. It provides concise descriptions of the various operations Marines may conduct and it records changes to Marine Corps as determined by the 2010 Force Structure Review.

4 thoughts on “The Myth of Population-centric Counterinsurgency

  1. I’m sorry I missed that. Fortunately, it looks like his presentation was almost identical to the one I saw him give last year ( And from that post, here are your comments from then:

    “Look at the contemporary environment through the lens of the UK ‘Countering Irregular Activity’ (with its unfortunate acronym of CIA). Its key theme is a focusing on all instruments of national power as the tool box from which any response is drawn. This toolbox model applies within each of those instruments of national power which should apply the appropriate tool to do the job in a specific scenario.

    For the military, a very broader form of COIN is the current tool – much broader than the narrow myths of Malaya and Kenya – but COL Gentile is 100% correct that COIN is not the new ‘a’ war, it is simply the current ‘the’ war and certainly not so much that we should be discarding all the (current) tools for high intensity conventional conflict i.e. on the further right of the FSO nor not investing in the R&D for the next generation of tools for that kind of conflict. The COINdinistas may not fit any more into the Fulda Gap that the Gapists fit into Iraq in 2005…

    Maybe we should drop reference to hybrid war and start thinking about blended warfare – or, even better, a blended approach….yep, that’s right, one harnessing all those instruments of national power…”


    • Very keen on a blended approach as the way ahead regardless of the nature or level of conflict – I doubt that there have been many conflicts that have not be waged through a combination of DIME aspects of national power i.e. that have NOT been solely and entirely military activities. What really surprised me from last week’s presentation was that COL Gentile stated that what we probably see and OGA/NGO roles should also be picked up by the military, which seems to be going along the COINdinista line and that he didn’t say that this was an area in with OGA/NGO need to up their game in order for the military to focus on military outputs and creating a security envrionment in which OGA.NGO can safely (relatively) operate for nation/state-building, reconstruction, etc…


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