Since its encounter with political violence in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military has taken significant steps to improve its understanding of counterinsurgency. Faced with operational demands for which they had little preparation, its troops adapted quickly, on the fly, and while under fire. Nearly ten years on, the outcome of these campaigns still hangs in the balance, but the sustained operational experience has already had a profound effect on the US military as an institution. During this period its priorities have shifted, from a near-exclusive focus on major combat operations to a greater emphasis on the types of missions encountered in theatre, be they termed ‘counterinsurgencies’, ‘stability operations’ or, somewhat perversely, ‘small wars’. As part of the reorientation, US military thinking now reflects greater awareness of war’s political essence, its unpredictability, and of what it means to intervene in foreign polities. The rate of institutional change has in many ways been impressive, given the United States’ fraught relation to counterinsurgency since the Vietnam War. The process of change is not limited to the United States, though it is here that it has been the swiftest and most apparent. It was not until 2010, four years after the US Army and Marine Corps published their seminal counterinsurgency manual, that the French armed forces followed suit; NATO, meanwhile, has yet to ratify its ‘Allied Joint Publication for Counterinsurgency’, despite being engaged in Afghanistan since 2003.2 Even so, change is occurring, prompted by repeated military tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. Counterinsurgency has thus moved from being a marginal concern, indelibly (and ill-fatedly) associated with the Vietnam War, to a prime preoccupation among the armed forces of several European countries. Whereas the United Kingdom and France have long traditions of counterinsurgency and old manuals that could be dusted off and updated, several other European nations are pondering this term for the first time and are, in many cases, finding that its nature and requirements differ significantly from those of previous experiences with peacekeeping and humanitarian operations. For proponents of this learning process, the progress made represents the hopeful first few steps of a much longer and sorely needed transformation. Yet the rise of counterinsurgency has also confronted a backlash, and resistance to the idea is rapidly spreading – in part because of its perceived failure to bring results in Afghanistan. Most of those who follow the debate will attest to counterinsurgency’s gradual ‘falling out of grace’, whereby a concept perceived as necessary and innovative only a few years ago is now deeply unpopular and in danger of being flushed out before even taking root. NATO forces will undoubtedly retain a presence in Afghanistan for

years to come, as will US forces in Iraq, but there is little enthusiasm for the concept of counterinsurgency or hope that its associated lessons and principles may help, either in ongoing operations or elsewhere. Indeed, references to counterinsurgency are increasingly likely to draw tired sighs or outright hostility, as if the concept were a big con, conceived out of sheer naivety, or worse, with an intention to deceive. A crossroad has thus been reached, where what has been learned over the last decade is either rejected or consolidated. To some, the opportunity to come to grips with counterinsurgency is matched in magnitude only by the cost of failing to do so, yet to detractors the concept is based on poor scholarship and distracts the armed forces from their ‘true’ calling. The two camps are engaged in a tug-of-war, but it is unclear where either team stands or whether they are pulling at the same rope. This is therefore a good point at which to ask some pressing questions: is counterinsurgency theory truly bogus, or is it the soil in which this seed is planted that is unsupportive of its germination and growth? If the critics of counterinsurgency are right, is there nonetheless something to this concept that ought to be saved? If the critics are wrong, what are the benefits of retaining and promoting counterinsurgency as a military priority today?