Keith Boyea's Blog

Notes & Commentary on National Security, Current Affairs and Bourbon

COIN and the Analytic Tradition

Thesis: The American attitude towards counterinsurgency doctrine fits into the analytical approach to philosophy popular in the English-speaking world.*

At heart, counterinsurgency is a scientific approach to war.  It is an engineer’s approach–it attempts to solve the problem of insurgency by measuring, testing, and forming hypotheses about the social structure of a country.  (If you doubt that, please read Noah Shachtman’s recent piece for Danger Room.)

Similarly, the United States and England have a history of taking an analytic approach to philosophy.  Analytic philosophy is an engineer’s approach to philosophy.  It emphasizes formal logic and the scientific method to solve philosophical problems.  Interestingly, analytical philosophy is very influential in the English-speaking world, but its rival, continental philosophy, is more popular in mainland Europe.

I find both types interesting in their own way, but I can’t help but notice the overlap between the analytical tradition and counterinsurgency.  It seems to me that both analytical philosophy and counterinsurgency attempt to scientific-ize things that haven’t traditionally been thought of as scientific (philosophy & war).  In counterinsurgency, metrics are king.  In Afghanistan, we’ve tried to measure everything–fruit prices, trucking costs, civilian casualties, aid dollars spent, and the number of vendors in the local bazaar are just a few.  The effort to measure everything is an effort to establish causal relationships.  For example, if fruit prices spike, the counterinsurgency might be able to establish that the fruit vendors are expecting an outbreak of violence in the area of produce production.  In short, if we can establish that Y indicates X, we can adjust our strategy in order to prevent X (or Y).  In this way, the counterinsurgent develops a system of measuring inputs, adjusting behavior accordingly, and measuring outputs. 

The attempts of counterinsurgents to gain clarity of what is happening in a society reminds me of the emphasis on clarity that analytical philosophers strive for.  Analytical philosophers have long drawn on natural science and math as well as cognitive and brain science.  They take the same approach as counterinsurgents do: hypothesis, measure, adjust, hypothesis, measure.  Or more generally, both use  the scientific method.

While researching this post, I found the following critique of analytics written by Brian Leiter**.  I couldn’t help but think if you changed the context from analytical philosophy to counterinsurgency, it would make just as much sense:

Criticisms of “analytic” philosophy are familiar: arid, insular, boring, obsessed with logic-chopping, irrelevant. The criticisms are not without some truth. Clearly the “best” analytic philosophers do not resonate with the concerns of the broader culture in the way that figures like Nietzsche and Sartre do. Analytic philosophers do often miss the forest for the trees, and they often let dialectical ingenuity trump good sense (and sometimes science!) in terms of the views they will defend.

Missing the forest for the trees…When I read that, I couldn’t help but think of the contemporary debate over the future of COIN.  It is my opinion that there has too much questioning the “how” of counterinsurgency and not enough questioning the “why.”  Counterinsurgency theorists are desperate to make COIN work, even if means defending, against their good sense, high numbers of civilian casualties, appalling treatment of civilians during night raids, destroying villages in order to save them, and thousands of American casualties.  They are, of course, missing the forest for the trees. 

 * These posts on philosophy should be read with much skepticism.  I’m not a professionally trained philosopher.  I have passion for it, but little formal training.  In that sense, my tweet from this week applies:  You should not think I necessarily know what the hell I’m talking about.

 ** Brian Leiter is a really smart guy.  If anything here is inaccurate, the errors are all mine.


Written by keithboyea

July 22, 2011 at 3:24 pm

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  1. Keith – great post. I’m with you on everything except for two quibbles. First, the Army has a long tradition of studying the “science” of conflict and war, acknowledging that it’s a mix of science and art. I can’t say a lot of this studying has turned into anything useful outside of conventional conflict, but linking science and war has been around for a while. I think (not my area of expertise) that this is especially true of the Air Force going to back to at least WWII and their attempt to use statistics and whatnot to determine the utility and targets of strategic bombing (questionable results to be sure…).

    The other issue I have is the broad stroke you paint counterinsurgency theorists with. There are (or should be) two conversations: whether or not to use COIN and how to use COIN if that’s the proscribed strategy/policy. The former I see as highly situational to specific conflicts (I’d agree that most of the time “COIN” as we understand it today is a bad way to address FP objectives). The latter is the military art and science of being able to foot the bill once the National Command Authority has decided, for better or worse, to do COIN. It is not the DoD’s place, after they’ve suggested not doing COIN, to say they don’t do COIN. I think this is what drives a lot of people (such as myself) to spend time talking about the how instead of the why – I feel I can affect the former much more than the latter.

    I’m sure I haven’t expressed any of this well and there’s a lot more to say. But your main point, that we can’t scientifically and logically think our way out of COIN wars, is true. Which is why there still are no universal (hell, no local) sets of metrics to determine sources of conflict or how to fix them. And I’m skeptical we’ll ever find them. But that doesn’t mean we should prepare for the next time the military is tasked to this type of work, because it will happen again.

    Jason Fritz

    July 22, 2011 at 6:23 pm

    • Jason,

      As far as point one, I would highlight the “art” part of the “science” of war. Even at USAFA our military classes were called “Military Art and Science” (though they’ve probably changed the name now). There’s always been an art part to war–Sun Tsu’s The Art of War and the German concept of “fingerspitzengefuhl.” I think that is much different from the rhetoric of COIN we hear now. General Petraeus openly spoke of “getting the inputs” right, as if it were a simple mathematical equation. In addition, given that insurgencies are wars amongst the people, it makes sense that we’d turn to social science in response.

      That said, I don’t really disagree with your point. There is a long tradition of the scientific study of warfare. Maybe COIN is simply a logical step in that tradition. This may or may not invalidate my thesis; I’m not sure.

      On point two, you are absolutely correct. COIN is a tough topic to pin down in a few hundred words, so I am most certainly guilty of taking some shortcuts with the concept. (The other thing I’m interested in is that if COIN actually works>)

      I’d guess I’d say, in regards to your final point, that to the extent I have any set political belief, it is that we should do everything we can to avoid getting ourselves into a COIN situation again. And the thing is, we can totally do that, with better decision making at the political level.

      Thanks for reading and commenting–I feel honored that Ink Spots is reading; I’m a daily reader over there.



      July 22, 2011 at 7:59 pm

      • Good initial points. I really had no idea how analytical and metric based the COIN ops are until I sat through Gen Odierno’s daily MUBs (Morning Update Brief) for 6 months in Baghdad in 2009. Correlation and causation are attempted on so many factors it is staggering. I will argue that while most of these strategies based on analytics end up being costly in time/effort/manpower and generally ineffective, there are some metrics that can be good trend indicators of progress of lack thereof. For instance, in Iraq, the level of electricity being produced and sustained was directly proportional to the level of roving power outages experienced, which was a pretty good indicator of public overall pleasure/displeasure (barring some sort of significant event causing loss of life). Happier people are less likely to blow themselves up or support a radical group. This could be correlated to violence levels in a lot of areas. That is one small indicator which happened to make sense to track. For every instance like this, there are 5 or six irrelevant studies conducted. The good thing about analyzing so much info is that a person with a “forrest” view can use some of this data to identify general trends. Too often the men with the big picture aren’t the ones making the calls.

        One last point I will make is that COIN ops are nothing new to the english speaking world, although success rates are questionable. The English did a decent job for a short period in attempting to stabilize the middle east in the early 1900’s. Those gains obviously have been overcome by events. Iraq is arguably about as stable as it was under Sadaam, and the fragile gains of the COIN ops there may yet prove to be a success, pending history’s verdict and passage of time. A good indicator (yep…another metric) is when the Iraqi dinar starts trading on foreign currency markets indicating stabilization. As for COIN in Afghanistan (where I am currently residing), I think there is a clear case of missing the forest for the trees, and in the end, the only thing we may have accomplished is moving the battleground for the “War on Terror” from New York City to Kabul for a decade.

        Tony Straw

        Tony Straw

        July 22, 2011 at 10:38 pm

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