The Problem with Rhetoric in COIN

By: Gaute Solheim

The tax man should think twice before weighing in when professionals debate CT and COIN. But working in the tax profession will teach you a thing or two about the relationship between government and those governed. My own military years were spent in the Norwegian HJK/FSK (Special Forces) in the mid-eighties, and during that time, I learned that military force is useful for three kinds of tasks:

  1. Eliminating the force of an opponent (either materially or psychologically, or both);
  2. Denying an opponent the use of a resource (usually terrain, but also radio frequencies or water);
  3. Securing a resource for one's own use (usually terrain). From this perspective, the use of military force to go after al Qaeda in Afghanistan makes perfect sense.

Phase one involved knocking out the fighting resources of the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Phase two involved denying the opponent the use of Afghanistan as a safe haven.

Phase three saw the United States and its allies striving to secure Afghanistan as an area for their own operations. This phase, it could be argued, served the dual objectives of eliminating the fighting power of al Qaeda and the Taliban in the region, and securing a vantage point in the only place within close proximity to the strategic problem of an unstable, nuclear-armed Pakistan.

Phase three is an occupation. You may dress it in any language you want, but as a military operation it still is an occupation.

The political problem is that tasks two and three are military operations for which there is no "win." They do not have an endpoint. They are something you keep on doing for as long as the benefits are higher than the costs. You keep your men on top of Hill 386 not because you want to grow grapes there for generations, but because it is the perfect place from which to direct artillery fire on the enemy. If the enemy moves, the hill becomes useless, and you would be stupid if you did not cut the cost of keeping men there.

Based on this Stone Age perspective on the use of military force, I see at least two problems with COIN. The first problem is one of deception. The political and military rhetoric used to communicate about the conflict is one of the main problems with Afghanistan today. It is the rhetoric of COIN. We have wrapped something that has the nature of tasks two or three in words belonging to task one: "winning hearts and minds," instead of "occupying for as long as the costs remain lower than the benefits."

This is why politicians love COIN. It creates the illusion of an operation with the character of task 1, and gives politicians the rhetoric they need when they want to dress up an occupation as something else, something more palatable. The vocabulary of COIN allows them to create the illusion of a future victory parade after "winning" those hearts and minds, while pointing to military and academic COIN experts as witnesses for the truth of the words they use. What is hidden from the public is the fact that the military profession has changed its rhetoric from that once used by generals to that of politicians, rewriting occupation to resemble the theatre of an election campaign in which you try to "win" hearts and minds. This shift obscures the reality that to "win" an election is not the kind of "winning" we think about in terms of a task one–type military operation. An election amounts to a ceasefire with a time limit. The opposition will be just as resourceful when it comes to the next election.

COIN is at best the least costly way to conduct task two or three operations. Worse, it is willful deception of your own population. Worst of all, you end up fooling yourself. As Robert Feynman told Caltech students in a 1974 commencement address, "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool."1 An illustrative example of the importance of fooling neither yourself nor others with COIN rhetoric appeared in an op-ed in a Norwegian newspaper in October 2012.2 A Norwegian LTG assessed whether our military involvement in Afghanistan had been a success or a failure. His analysis was based entirely on the premise that the reason why Norway sent military forces to Afghanistan was to help establish a stable democracy that would respect the rule of law and human rights, and improve the living conditions of the Afghan people.

I was surprised. From 2001 until I read this, I had believed that the reason we Norwegians sent our soldiers there was because it was payback time. As a nation with a long coastline that reaches to the Arctic sea, we have a strategic interest in keeping the United States as a close friend, and such friendships come at a cost. Soldiers in Afghanistan were the hard currency with which such strategic debts could be paid after 9/11. Later, when we said, "No, thank you," after being invited to go into Iraq, we experienced a corresponding devaluation of our standing with Washington.3

The second problem with COIN rhetoric is that it limits our ability to learn the lessons that are there to be learned. By denying the fact that we are either trying to deny someone the use of territory or secure our own use of that territory, we fail to learn from some of the most successful prior occupations. Among these are the German occupations during WWII, if we can put aside moral judgement and evaluate them purely with regard to effectiveness and efficiency. As a Norwegian, I know Norwegian history best, so will use it for an example.

From a strategic perspective, it was important for Germany to secure Norway for its own operations. Norway provided the Germans with strategically located harbours and access to the North Atlantic, and secured them a year-round supply of Swedish iron ore, while at the same time denying the Allies the use of Norway as a safe haven for support to the Soviet Union. The occupation's costs were kept low by relying on a puppet regime (the infamous Quisling4) and building support among the Norwegians by providing work. The Nazis managed to build almost 300 coastal forts, along with roads and factories, in only a couple of years, using a population of less than 4 million people. Norway's neighbour Sweden (read: Pakistan) served as a safe haven for the Norwegian resistance. The Germans, however, managed to keep the harm inflicted by this resistance movement at an absolute minimum level during their five years of occupation.

The occupation of Norway was a masterpiece of COIN, which relied heavily on tweaking existing local structures into supportive functions, observing local procedures for deciding and meting out punishment, and elegantly relying on the existing security units, which already were very well trained in gathering intelligence against labour movements and communists. A body of literature is now emerging that offers a perspective less influenced by stories about Norway's rather few real resistance heroes and the Norwegian people's need to feel good about themselves in the spring of 1945.

So this is the second casualty of COIN rhetoric: We fail to learn from anything that we classify as an occupation.

From friends still serving in the army, my impression is that your "conventional" officer feels more at home when reality is described in terms of tasks one, two, and three and calculations of cost–benefit than when the talk is all about hearts and minds. Special operations are sometimes useful tools when it comes to keeping costs (material or political or both) low. As stand-alone forces deployed with a lot of COIN rhetoric, however, they are better for improving the image of political leaders than they are for improving the strategic outlook of a nation.

Some Final Thoughts

Here is an entertaining side note: The U.S. field manual for COIN, FM 3-24, offers a fantastic (probably unintentional) illustration of what happens when field manual meets reality. Under the headline "Hand Shake Con" on top of page 58, you will find this quote:

General Anthony C. Zinni:5

"… [t]he Joint Chiefs of Staff asked me … ‘The lines in your command chart, the command relationships, what are they? OpCon [operational control]? TaCon [tactical control]? Command?' ‘Sir, we don't ask, because no one can sign up to any of that stuff.' ‘Well, how do you do business?' ‘Hand Shake Con. That's it.' No memoranda of agreement. No memoranda of understanding … [T]he relationships are worked out on the scene, and they aren't pretty. And you don't really want to capture them, … distil them, and say as you go off into the future, you're going to have this sort of command relationship… ."

I discovered Zinni's quote just fifteen pages after I had read paragraph 1-133 on page 43 of the manual:

Every action by counterinsurgents leaves a "forensic trace" that may be required later in a court of law. Counterinsurgents document all their activities to preserve, wherever possible, a chain of evidence. Accurate documentation can also be important means to counter insurgent propaganda.

The clash between reality and the theory of COIN is documented by the field manual itself!

About the Author(s): Gaute Solheim served in the Norwegian Armed Forces SOF.


1. Richard Feynman, "Cargo Cult Science," Engineering and Science, June 1974:; accessed November 21, 2012. This is a must read for anyone interested in quality and critical thinking.

2. LTG Robert Mood, "Soldatene fortjener takk" Aftenposten, October 5, 2012:; accessed November 21, 2012.

3. For the U.S. reaction to Norway's decision not to participate in the Iraq invasion, with quotes from former Foreign Minister Knut Voldebæk and Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik, see Eivind Fondenes, "Vi unngikk å bli ekskludert av amerikanerne," TV2, November 16, 2011: aa-bli-ekskludert-av-amerikanerne-3637966. html; accessed November 21, 2012.

4. Vidkun Abraham Lauritz Jonssøn Quisling was a Norwegian military officer and politician, whose willing collaboration with the Nazi regime during World War II turned his name into a byword for a traitor.

5. U.S. Marine Corps General (Ret.) Anthony Zinni served as commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and then CENTCOM commander from the mid-1990s until his retirement in 2000.

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