I got into a bit of a back-and-forth on Friday with a Weekly Standard writer about my contention that “I think COIN has a poor track record of success, a terrible track record in a cost/benefit sense, and that the self-conscious development of COIN capabilities risks inducing demand for military action.”
In terms of COIN’s track record of success this wound up turning on slightly metaphysical questions. I pointed out that in the RAND corporation’s survey of counterinsurgency operations, the vast majority have been failures. The counterpoint to that is that different undertakings involved different tactics, and the success rate of properly done counterinsurgency is much higher. I think that gets a bit methodologically dodgy. Of course if you only count the successful COIN undertakings, then pull out some common thread, the thread looks good. But that doesn’t really mean that there’s a reliable ex ante way to identify the conditions for a successful undertaking.
But my bigger point here is really the cost/benefit one. War is, to put it mildly, not a positive sum undertaking. France “won” World War One and recaptured Alsace-Lorraine in the process, but France would have been much better off had the war never been initiated. The COIN track record in this regard is especially bad. Several of the commonly cited success stories come from colonial situations in which it’s very hard to say what the nature of the “gains” achieved via “success” actually were. It’s not as if Britain still runs Kenya or Malayasia or the United States still controls the Philippines. On top of that, there’s no reason to think it would be beneficial for the UK or US to colonize Kenya or Malaysia or the Philippines.