The Institutional Failures of Modern Counterinsurgency

The Abrams Tank, Wikimedia Commons

By Sebastian J. Bae, Columnist


‘‘Learning to eat soup with a knife,” a phrase attributed to Lawrence of Arabia, has become the buzzword reflecting the new challenges and demands of counterinsurgency.[1] However, the lessons of two lengthy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have not translated into institutional reform. The US military remains the same cumbersome institution preparing to fight the last war despite its transformed national strategy. The litany of organizational shortcomings is long – the mismatch of resource allocation and mission focus, the lack of institutionalized counterinsurgency skills, and the woefully inadequate language skills and regional expertise – and must be overcome if the military is expected to carry out future counterinsurgencies.

The Armed Services remain focused on purchasing pricey weapon systems designed for conventional wars, which possess little or no value in counterinsurgencies. The beleaguered F-35 stealth fighter is the most expensive military project in history at a staggering $382 billion.[2] Pitched as a revolutionary yet affordable jet fighter of the future, the F-35 project has been plagued by technical delays, cost overruns, and increasing skepticism of the project’s value. At the same time, there are roughly 2,000 M-1 Abrams tanks sitting idle in the deserts outside of Reno, Nevada. Each of these tanks cost the military $7.5 million to upgrade.[3] Despite the Army’s adamant stance that it does not need nor want more tanks, Congress continues to force tanks upon the Army. Dysfunctional military acquisition programs reflect domestic politics more than sound military strategy. Terminating the Abrams tank program is politically unviable because it supports 16,000 jobs and involves 882 suppliers spread across several congressional districts.[4]

Soldiers and Marines on the front lines win counterinsurgencies – not expensive, idle tank fleets. The stalled aerial campaigns against ISIS and the disastrous end state of the Libyan operation demonstrates the limits of advanced weaponry in the absence of boots on the ground. Nevertheless, the average infantry kit remains heavy, cumbersome, and outdated. The standard fighting load of a squad leader is 62.43 pounds – a combination of rounds, Kevlar, MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), radios, and specialized gear.[5] Additionally, soldiers and Marines are commonly equipped with ineffectual gear from foggy ballistics glasses to unwieldy rifles covered in lasers and add-ons. The United States should invest in lighter body armor and integrated information systems to make sure the infantry kit supports the needs of soldiers engaged in counterinsurgency operations. As long as the tools do not match the mission, success will remain a pipedream.

The Counterinsurgency Field Manual demands soldiers, sailors, and Marines be social workers, diplomats, policemen, and armed combatants.[6] Yet, military training has not evolved to teach the skills the new counterinsurgency strategy requires. Soldiers and Marines practice helicopter insertions, close air support, convoy patrols, and beach landings to perfection. However, combat prowess remains only one component of successful counterinsurgency. If the military needs versatile soldiers, training must expand beyond armed combat. International relations, sociology, police programs, and statecraft must be systemically integrated into training programs from the enlisted ranks to the General Staff. Higher education can no longer be the sole realm of college-educated officers. Every sergeant must be able to navigate the political-social environment of counterinsurgencies as efficiently as they fire a rifle. As COIN experts Daniel Marston and Carter Malkastan stated, “Tactical brilliance at counterinsurgency translates into very little when political and social context is ignored or misinterpreted.”[7] The ‘one time, one week training course’ mentality of the Department of Defense is a Band-Aid to systemic inadequacies. Counterinsurgency lessons must be taught, practiced, and repeated in the military from non-commissioned schools to recurring specialized courses for units.[8] The average soldier must not only be faster and stronger, but smarter. A soldier or a Marine cannot execute a strategy he or she does not understand.

Similarly, the military has failed to cultivate the critical language skills and regional expertise required for successful counterinsurgency. Despite a decade of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Pentagon continues to struggle with retaining competency in Arabic, Farsi, and Pashto.[9] Mastery of a region’s language, history, and customs is essential in a population-centric strategy. How can a platoon of 41 Marines effectively collaborate or train with locals with a single translator? General John Mattis, who as commander of the 1st Marine Division was involved in the initial invasion of and subsequent stability operations in Iraq, stated, “Having someone who can speak Arabic is like having another infantry battalion.”[10] General Mattis understood expert marksmanship eliminates targets, but does not build trust or cooperation. Without the ability to communicate on a personal level with locals, soldiers and Marines struggle to understand, empathize, and collaborate with their counterparts. Language barriers are powerful and remain an obstacle the military has been unable to overcome.

Ultimately, the question may not be whether we possess the right counterinsurgency campaign, but whether we have the right kind of institutions executing them.


Sebastian J. Bae is pursuing his Masters at Georgetown’s Security Studies Program, specializing in international security. He served six years in the Marine Corps infantry as a Sergeant, and deployed to Iraq in 2009. He previously studied at UC Berkeley for his undergraduate degree in Peace & Conflicts Studies, and did academic exchanges and fellowships at the University of Hong Kong as an undergraduate and the University of St. Andrews Centre for the Study of Political Violence and Terrorism as a graduate student. His professional and academic focus has been in counter insurgency operations and humanitarian interventions, particularly concerning the Right to Protect doctrine.  


[1] Moritz Feichtinger, Stephan Malinowski, Chase Richards, “Transformative Invasions: Western Post-9/11 Counterinsurgency and the Lessons of Colonialism,” Humanity, vol. 3, Number 1, (Spring 2012): 36.

[2] “The Last Manned Fighter,” The Economist, July 14, 2011,

[3] Richard Lardner, “Abrams Tank Pushed By Congress Despite Army’s Protests,” Huffington Post, April 28, 2013,

[4] Drew Griffin and Kathleen Johnston, “Army to Congress: Thanks, but No Tanks,” CNN, Oct 9, 2012,

[5] “The Modern Warrior’s Combat Load,” US Army Center for Army Lessons Learned, (April-May 2003): 13.

[6] US Army and US Marine Corps, Counterinsurgency, FM 3–24 (2006): 2–9.

[7] Aaron Edwards, “Misapplying lessons learned? Analyzing the utility of

British counterinsurgency strategy in Northern Ireland 1971–76,” Small Wars & Insurgencies, 21:2, (2010): 321.

[8] Nigel Aylwin-Foster, “Changing the Army for Counterinsurgency Operations,” Military Review, (December 2005): 9-11.

[9] Mark Thompson, “The Pentagon’s Foreign-Language Frustrations,” TIME, Aug 24, 2011,

[10] Moritz Feichtinger, Stephan Malinowski, Chase Richards, “Transformative Invasions: Western Post-9/11 Counterinsurgency and the Lessons of Colonialism,” Humanity, vol. 3, Number 1, (Spring 2012): 35.

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