COIN failed for many reasons, “ranging from corrupt partner governments that prioritized ethno-sectarian interests over national cohesion and reconciliation, to the hubris involved in any effort to remake a society and culture in one’s own image.”

As ISIS Regroups, the U.S. Is Forgetting the Lessons of Counterinsurgency—Again – Judah Grunstein WPR – May 1, 2019

The surprise reappearance of the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in a recently recorded video seems like a throwback to the mid-2000s. The most visible difference from the video recordings Osama bin Laden used then to remind al-Qaida followers he was still alive—and persuade them he was still relevant—is that al-Baghdadi, who was last seen in 2014, is seated on the floor of what seems like a furnished living room, rather than a cave.
In other ways, too, the defeat of the Islamic State as a self-declared caliphate and its return as a transnational terrorist network would seem to put us back to where we found ourselves in 2001, after the expulsion of al-Qaida from Afghanistan. But that would be to ignore how much has changed since then.

Even before the death of bin Laden in 2011, but especially after, the West had been lulled into a sense of complacency in the fight against Islamist extremists, for several reasons. Against the backdrop of the Arab uprisings, the logic of bin Laden’s anti-Western jihad seemed to lose its resonance, as the U.S. and Europe stood by as sclerotic regimes fell to internal forces of change. Then, as the hope of 2011 began to fade, transnational Islamist terrorism went increasingly local, pursuing territorial gains in Libya, the Sahel and, most prominently, in Iraq and Syria under al-Baghdadi’s direction.

The Islamic State’s ability to overrun government forces in Iraq and seize a sizeable amount of territory in Syria, combined with the brutal spectacle of its ultra-violence, served as a wake-up call to the threat still posed by extremist groups even with locally bound aspirations. And subsequent attacks in France, Germany and the U.K.—some planned and organized by Islamic State fighters based in Syria, others the work of so-called lone-wolf homegrown terrorists—put the group front and center in the U.S. in the 2014 and 2016 electoral cycles.

Now, however, the U.S. seems to have reached a point of terror-fatigue. Barring a major attack on the U.S. homeland, it’s hard to imagine the U.S. mounting another substantial military operation to counter the ongoing threat posed by the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. The anti-ISIS coalition in Syria and Iraq could very well end up being the swan song of the U.S. military’s visible engagement in the fight against terror.

As if to underscore that point, the Pentagon’s most recent strategy documents identify strategic competition from China and Russia, rather than counterterrorism, as the U.S. military’s highest priority. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has clearly stated it has no intention of spearheading efforts to reconstruct areas liberated from the Islamic State. With the group defeated on the battlefield, the Pentagon’s work is done.

The contrast is striking to anyone who paid close attention to the internal debates within the U.S. military during the mid-2000s and culminating in the 2006 surge, at the height of the American occupation and counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq.

The next generation of violent extremists will almost certainly be inspired by the rubble left behind by the U.S.-led war against the Islamic State.

Back then, the lessons of Iraq—from a strictly military perspective—seemed clear. The 2003 invasion highlighted the transformational impact of what strategists called the “Revolution in Military Affairs,” as precision weaponry and technologically integrated command-and-control infrastructure proved their value as fearsome force-magnifiers. The post-invasion occupation subsequently demonstrated that even the most technologically advanced military remains vulnerable to the age-old asymmetric tactics of a popularly supported insurgency.

Led by David Petraeus and a cohort of like-minded reformers, the U.S. military eventually responded by adopting a new counterinsurgency approach in Iraq that transformed not only tactical operations but also strategic objectives. Population-centric counterinsurgency, or COIN, identified the local inhabitants, rather than enemy combatants, as the center of gravity of all military operations. It entailed a whole-of-government approach that included post-conflict reconstruction and development projects to help reestablish the services and social structures destroyed by combat operations. Winning the war meant winning the competition for the population’s allegiance, and good governance and legitimacy were considered as decisive to the outcome as battle victories and enemy casualties.

The ascendance of the COINdinistas, as they became known, was not without controversy. Critics argued that the emphasis on COIN in procurement, training and operations would degrade the U.S. military’s ability to conduct combined-arms warfare against a conventional peer adversary, meaning China. But proponents, who came to include then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, argued that in Iraq and Afghanistan, the urgency of necessity outweighed potential future contingencies. You fight the wars you’re in now, the argument went, not the ones you might be in later.

In reality, the “COIN versus conventional” tug of war that took place in the late-2000s was the latest episode in the U.S. military’s long cyclical history of fighting counterinsurgencies—known variously as small wars, unconventional warfare and asymmetric warfare—as they arise, then tossing aside the operational lessons learned when they were no longer needed. As Petraeus and other COINdinistas pointed out in 2006, they were simply dusting off and updating doctrine the U.S. military had learned and applied in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s and Central America in the 1980s—to say nothing of the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century—but subsequently discarded due to the military and moral failings in those conflicts.

For all the fanfare surrounding the rebirth and resurgence of COIN at the time, it failed in both Iraq and Afghanistan to achieve a strategic victory—the primary goal of any military intervention no matter how it is defined. There were a number of reasons for this failure, ranging from corrupt partner governments that prioritized ethno-sectarian interests over national cohesion and reconciliation, to the hubris involved in any effort to remake a society and culture in one’s own image. That failure led directly to the rise of the Islamic State, and subsequently to the rejection by the U.S. military and the American electorate of COIN and the nation-building platform it is based on.

For the U.S. military, rejecting COIN reflects its historical preference for the more clear-cut principles of conventional warfare, where victory and defeat between armed adversaries can be clearly discerned, over the softer edges and politically determined outcomes of counterinsurgency. For American voters, rejecting it expresses the frustration and anger over two decades of squandered lives, resources and power in pursuit of an ill-conceived adventure that was oversold and under-resourced.

But if the U.S. has given up on fighting terrorism, it’s not sure whether the reverse is true, as al-Baghdadi’s video declaration makes clear. And regardless of the debates over the effectiveness of COIN, the next generation of violent extremists will almost certainly be inspired by the rubble left behind by the U.S.-led war against the Islamic State, if they don’t emerge directly from it. Moreover, even if the Islamic State can’t successfully launch attacks against the U.S. and Western Europe, the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka demonstrate how easily the group and its acolytes can destabilize countries outside the West.

In many ways, the logic guiding counterinsurgency has not grown any less compelling. Predatory governance can drive popular grievances over the line to violence, and fragile states and ungoverned spaces provide extremist groups with fertile ground to incubate. Counterinsurgency didn’t solve those problems. Ignoring them won’t either.

Judah Grunstein is the editor-in-chief of World Politics Review. His WPR column appears every Wednesday.