Is COIN Inherently Fragile? And Even Worse, Is Insurgency Anti-Fragile?

The Long March
U.S. Marine Corps/Sgt. Demetrius Munnerlyn

While reading this passage in Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile about optionality, an old thought about counterinsurgency and its inherent difficulties reappeared in my head:

If you ‘have optionality,’ you don’t have much need for what is commonly called intelligence, knowledge, insight, skills, and these complicated things that take place in our brain cells. For you don’t have to be right that often. All you need is the wisdom to not do unintelligent things to hurt yourself (some acts of omission) and recognize favorable outcomes when they occur.

Now, Taleb explicitly addresses foreign policy in the book, but this passage had me jotting down how counterinsurgency fits this description. Counterinsurgency seems to similarly require a combination of relatively rare attributes for success. It seems to require us to be right often. This seems unlikely, based on recent history and simple probability.

Let us consider a U.S.-led counterinsurgency operation in a foreign country, such as Vietnam or Iraq. Such a campaign requires consistent, high-quality military leadership with leaders who believe in, understand, and know how to implement counterinsurgency; the long-term support or at least acquiescence of the American public; and political reconciliation to address the underlying problems that led to the insurgency. Each one of these by itself is improbable and, taken together, mean that every time the United States undertakes a counterinsurgency struggle we have a low chance of success, for such success requires a combination of rare attributes.

On top of the probabilities of success or failure, what are the potential negative and positive outcomes? Recent history provides numerous examples of the downsides: The rise of the Islamic State, the U.S.’s return to Iraq, the Syrian civil war, and the Syrian refugee crisis all arose from our invasion of Iraq in 2003. What, however, is the potential reward for the decades of money and lives we have poured into these countries? Ultimately that remains to be seen. The best-case scenario is probably something like this: The United States gains a democratic, relatively liberal, and stable ally in a strategically important region, and this country allows us to keep military forces within its borders. This undoubtedly benefits U.S. foreign policy, but is it worth the cost? Furthermore, does it seem like either Iraq or Afghanistan will resemble this without vast amounts of money and troops for the foreseeable future. We have troops in Afghanistan and the entire country is not under government control. In Iraq, political reconciliation remains unlikely, and without it the country remains open to civil war and the influences of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other regional actors.

Counterinsurgency proponents would probably argue that these are all offshoots of failures in counterinsurgency. We need to do counterinsurgency better, maintain knowledge of counterinsurgency theory and practice within the military, and enable commanders and non-military organizations to better execute counterinsurgency. They are not wrong, but they miss the point. Counterinsurgency has a low chance of success, and just because it can succeed isn’t a good enough reason to undertake it.

So, what should the United States government do? I would like to see a humbler foreign policy. This is partly why I have been returning to the Powell Doctrine and seeing the fundamental wisdom in it. I know it is derided and maybe simplistic, but it provides a decision-making template grounded in the fundamental truth that we should avoid long-term military struggles. This seems wise. Yes, counterinsurgency can work, but, again, it requires multiple relatively rare attributes and conditions, it risks much, and the potential payoff is relatively low and improbable.  

Daniel Shell is an Army infantry officer with a B.A. in history and political science from the Ohio State University.  He is currently stationed at Fort Bragg awaiting assignment to the Maneuver Captain's Career Course. This article represents his own views, which are not necessarily those of the Army, the Defense Department, or the U.S. government.

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