As long as there has been war, as long as one nation has sought to impose its military will on another, there have been insurgents… and there have also been counterinsurgents.
It was the ancient Romans who popularized what has become an oft-imitated means of dealing with recalcitrant and subjugated peoples—the so-called Roman Method of repression to quell the noncompliant. Since those long-ago days, numerous countries and empires (from autocracies to democracies) have used similar counterinsurgency (COIN) tactics. Indeed, the history of COIN is a depressing and unremitting tale of coercion and violence generally aimed not just at armed insurgents but at civilian populations as well.
The United States has not been immune from such conflicts—or their brutality. Counterinsurgent fights were waged at home against Native American tribes and in Central America, the Philippines and Vietnam. These small wars are in some manner the defining element of the American Way of War.
In recent years, however, the US military has not only rediscovered counterinsurgency but reinvented it, first in Iraq and now in Afghanistan. To listen to the American military or, better, to read the Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual, FM 3-24, is to hear a tale of COIN’s bloody legacy of coercion and violence magically transformed.
According to this new telling, the key to winning COIN conflicts is in protecting civilians and providing a better future for them—that is, winning hearts and minds via civic action rather than military force. As written in FM 3-24, counterinsurgency fights are population-centric, not enemy-centric, and are defined by an extraordinarily broad array of capabilities, "political, economic, military, paramilitary, psychological, and civic actions."
On the most basic level, the key to COIN victory rests in protecting the population, providing good governance, extending the legitimacy of the host government and gaining the trust of the people. This notion of warfighting has become so internalized in US military thinking that even the past has been rewritten. New assessments of conflicts in Malaya and Vietnam, conducted by COIN advocates, confidently assert that civic action, not coercion—much less forced separation of insurgents from the population—turned the tide of those conflicts. In the case of Vietnam, COIN advocates argue that once the United States turned to counterinsurgency, the direction of the war shifted; and that had the United States had the resilience to see the fight through, the embrace of population-centric COIN would have led the way to success.
Much of this new take on COIN is a result of the US military’s experience in Iraq, where, as the argument goes, a focus on protecting civilians and standing up the Iraqi government led to a decrease in civilian casualties. The supposed success of COIN tactics in Iraq, twinned with the 2007 surge of 30,000 US troops, led to the claim that these successes could be replicated in Afghanistan. Indeed, by the fall of 2009 Gen. Stanley McChrystal offered a strategic review of the situation in Afghanistan that concluded that a population-centric counterinsurgency—and only that strategy—could grasp victory from the jaws of defeat.