A U.S. military vehicle near Camp Gorgak in Helmand province, Afghanistan, July 2011 Shamil Zhumatov / Reuters
In 2006, when the U.S. war in Iraq was at its low point, the American military rediscovered counterinsurgency (COIN). This doctrine, developed in the 1950s by military innovators such as the British field marshal Gerald Templer in Malaya and the U.S. operative Edward Lansdale in the Philippines, holds that a military can’t defeat an insurgency by simply killing insurgents. In fact, by killing indiscriminately, one may actually create more enemies than one eliminates. The way to prevail, according to COIN doctrine, is to provide ordinary people with security and basic services. Doing so helps counterinsurgents earn people’s trust, making it more likely that they will provide the vital intelligence necessary to kill or capture hardcore insurgents without harming innocent civilians.
Two generals—David Petraeus of the U.S. Army and James Mattis of the U.S. Marine Corps—collaborated on a seminal field manual, published in December 2006, that popularized COIN thinking. In the years that followed, Petraeus applied COIN doctrine as commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. The “surge” he oversaw wound up reducing violence there by more than 90 percent. Although U.S. troops could not resolve underlying ethnosectarian tensions or turn Iraq into a model
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MAX BOOT is Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.