Gringo Lost

Words about things and stuff

My internal thesis debate: COIN or Mexico

with 3 comments

Before, I thought my graduate thesis would be on the Merida Initiative. Essentially to explore whether the Initiative is the best way for the US to focus its counter-narcotics efforts with Mexico. Well in true Gringo Lost fashion, instead of settling, I may change my thesis. Consequently giving myself heartburn and headaches because the replacement thesis will most likely be much more difficult. Here’s the basics on thesis option #2:

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have resulted in a re-thinking of counter-insurgency (COIN). As before, the army concentrated solely on killing the bad guys – an “enemy-centric” strategy – which often led to many civilian deaths from collateral damage and has been well argued (read Kilcullen and Exum, amongst others) was self-defeating. Now, the prevailing theme in COIN is to protect civilians at all costs – a “people-centric” strategy – which places a premium on protection, even if it means less strikes against insurgents.

However, there are some who argue (read Bacevich and Cohen) that this approach to COIN is flawed for several reasons: principally it requires too long of a commitment, the military is not designed for it, and the US doesn’t have the political will for it.

Now regarding my thesis, I believe the critiques of contemporary COIN as mentioned above are legitimate. But as I believe Exum has said how do we confront insurgents in any other way? Because if a “people-centric” approach can’t work and an “enemy-centric” approach produces more harm than good, then what is the US to do in Iraq and Afghanistan?

I guess this would be the root of my thesis… The question of “if not this, then what else?”

And yet another area of contemporary COIN that I would like to explore is its foundation. This area concerns me because I feel in practice it is a) unsustainable, b) uneconomical, and c) irrespective of the local political culture. Principally this is all because the system – with its various security controls, economic assistance, and political manufacturing – is not based on the initiative of the people. It is not organic.

In this sense, COIN doctrine seeks to gain the will of the people by making them clients of an occupying force. In the end, this results in citizens either becoming dependent on the force or moving away from the model. While either scenario may not be catastrophic, they assuredly cannot be the best outcomes.

Since this post is getting a little wordy, I’ll close now with a paradox courtesy of Andreas Kluth (heads-up its about how achieving success may ultimately lead to failure):

Failure is often the result of succeeding at the wrong thing (eg, choosing the wrong “battles” and “wars” to win, as Pyrrhus did). Ironically, success is therefore often the result of failing at the wrong thing, and thus having an opportunity to “return” to the right things.

What does this mean, who knows? But, maybe it can be of help to analyze the trajectory of current approaches to COIN.


Written by gringolost

June 18, 2009 at 5:38 am

Posted in COIN, thesis

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3 Responses

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  1. Fascinating thesis topic. Thanks for embedding my little paradox in this context.


    June 20, 2009 at 6:30 pm

  2. Gringo – if COIN is conducted irrespective of the local culture, of course it will be ineffective. I’m not sure what you’re reading that makes you think that Kilcullen, Exum, and their ilk think otherwise. Kilcullen’s an anthropologist, for god’s sake!

    On the other hand, don’t underestimate the pragmatism of people under the immense pressure of chronic insecurity. They tend to be highly rational, if a bounded rationality.

    That said, often the hardest part is inducing a defection from sub-par coping mechanisms they’ve developed to a paradigm that offers the chance of a long-term solution. Of course, it’s a chance, and therefore involves risk-taking.


    July 2, 2009 at 8:34 pm

    • Thanks MK for the comment. I appreciate constructive criticism. And I do want to rescind that statement if it appears to be accusing contemporary COINinstas of ignoring culture, I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. I do think the pop-centric approach is a significant step forward, but given political-economic realities I don’t think it will work.

      To get to your point about the “irrespective of local culture” thing. I find it hard to believe that an interventionist COIN approach doesn’t sometimes gloss over its inherent cultural inefficiencies. No matter what we do, we cannot pretend that we are always there because the people want us there. While not a perfect, the current operations in Helmand give an example:

      Look, there are good lessons that come along with current COIN thinking. But there are also some problems that aren’t taken into account. It is the problems which we need to focus on, instead of constantly patting ourselves on the back over the good.

      Just by stating Kilcullen is an anthropologist doesn’t win the argument about culture and instituting western-backed local governance. This is how I see it, in some instances our will to institute a governance matches up with the will of the people. But in some instances it does not.

      The risk-taking question that you pose should be more of a cost-benefit question to me. And I’m sure you’ve heard this argument before and that is: Is COIN worth the costs? And are there better approaches outside OR alongside COIN (albeit probably a more minimalistic COIN) that can be more cost-effective towards achieving a strategic result?

      What do you think?


      July 2, 2009 at 10:29 pm

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