COIN and the cultural turn

Derek Gregory has a new post about counterinsurgency (COIN) and the cultural turn here. He makes some very good points about COIN and the academic response, as well as providing some useful references:

When I wrote “Rush to the intimate” (DOWNLOADS tab) the new field manual FM 3-24 had just been released, and I was interested in how this – together with changes in pre-deployment training, technology and the rest – described a ‘cultural turn’ of sorts that seemed to be addressed as much to the American public as it was to the American military.

There is indeed something odd about a mode of military operations that advertises itself as ‘the graduate level of war’ (one of Petraeus’s favourite conceits about counterinsurgency) and yet describes a ‘cultural turn’ that is decades behind the cultural turns within the contemporary humanities and the social sciences.

This is an interesting point and one which I feel needs addressing. When military/intel enrolls geography into its doctrine and methodology, there is often a mismatch. As I said in a long post reflecting on the latest GEOINT conference a little while ago, this is either because academia has (wrongly or rightly) given up on something that others find valuable, or because there is a misunderstanding of the potential of our more recent work. Gregory continues:

That said, the discussion of counterinsurgency surely can’t be limited to a single text, its predecessors and its intellectual credentials. If there has been a ‘cultural turn’, then its codification now extends far beyond FM 3-24 (which is in any case being revised); if the domestic audience was an important consideration in 2006, the public has certainly lost interest since then (and, if the US election is any guide, in anything other than an air strike on Iran); and whatever the attractions of large-scale counterinsurgency operations in the recent past, Obama’s clear preference is for a mix of drone strikes, short-term and small-scale Special Forces operations, and cyberwar.

At the moment I don’t feel we in academia have a good enough take on this, or that we’re convincing to policy-makers on why foreign policy shouldn’t be a mix of drone strikes (see eg., “the moral case for drones” here and here by the American philosopher Bradley Strawser) aside from personal opinion informed on ethical grounds.

Or see Matthew Aid, a generally good commentator on intel, and his practically fan-boy adoration of Petraeus, here.

On special ops there are large majorities of Americans in favor of this:

“Do you approve or disapprove of the United States taking military action in countries where it believes terrorists are hiding?”
    Approve Disapprove Approve of
some (vol.)
    % % % %  
  11/6-10/11 65 22 7 6  
“Is it ever okay for the U.S. to authorize the killing of an American citizen in a foreign country if that person is known to be a terrorist, or is that never okay?”
    Okay Never okay Unsure    
    % % %    
  11/6-10/11 53 35 12  

On cyberwar, this is a huge issue for the intelligence community, and one of the central planks of the ODNI & CIA efforts. Not least, because of “insider threat” but also it is framed around threats from China and Russia, especially the former  and industrial secrets.

So I’m just saying that those three things are extremely well entrenched and we need better approaches.

Here are the references he provides:

Ben Anderson, ‘Population and affective perception: biopolitics and antiicpatory action in US counterinsurgency doctrine’, Antipode 43 (2) (2011) 205-36

Josef Teboho Ansorge, ‘Spirits of war: a field manual’, International political sociology 4 (2010) 362-79

Alan Cromartie, ‘Field Manual 3-24 and the heritage of counterinsurgency theory’, Millennium 41 (2012) 91-111

Marcus Kienscherf, ‘A programme of global pacification: US counterinsurgency doctrine and the biopolitics of human (in)security’, Security dialogue 42 (6) (2012) 517-35

Patricia Owens, ‘From Bismarck to Petraeus:the question of the social and the social question in counterinsurgency’, European journal of international relations [online early: March 2012]


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