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What role will counterinsurgency operations play in future conflicts?

Question submitted by Justin McDowell, from Minnesota State University Moorhead, October 21, 2013

Answered by: Patrick J. Mahaney Jr.


Counterinsurgency (COIN) operations will continue to be a viable option in future conflicts, particularly given rising instability in areas of interest to the United States and its allies. However, the relative feasibility and ability to support large COIN operations is very much in question.

The January 2012 U.S. Defense Strategic Guidance included "stability and COIN operations" on the list of ten priority missions, although it clearly downplayed their role and stressed that they would not be used as justification for force structuring. Simply put, COIN will remain a capability and requirement, but one intended to be used in a more limited fashion. Clearly, there is now an aversion to the "big COIN" stability and nation-building operations as seen in Iraq and Afghanistan—certainly understandable, but not a death knell for COIN and stability operations in the future.

At this point, a brief look at COIN and associated missions and required skills is in order. Operations on land always involve a human dimension, and those that involve contact with local populations are by their very nature complex, and require an effective and coherent civil-military approach. COIN is a prime example of this, and requires the application of all elements of national power: diplomatic/political, informational, military, and economic, among others. It requires an understanding of the human factors at play in the conflict, as well as the discriminate use of power in close and sustained operations among the people.

When done properly, even when direct combat roles are necessary, it focuses on working "by, with, and through" legitimate partners and building their capacity. Although there are no panaceas for complex problems, population-centric COIN is a methodology that is effective when applied selectively and correctly, and when its limits are understood. Indeed, the greatest legacy of recent COIN experience has been the recognition of the importance of understanding and then protecting the local populations, and doing so within an appropriate strategic context.