Here at, we frequently get questions from our readers, many of whom are or will shortly be aspiring members of our Special Operations Forces (SOF). Since most of our articles deal with the training aspect of SOF, we always welcome them.

We had a question and answer session this past weekend in one of our forums which led to several questions being asked after the fact via social media. One of them, I felt deserved a column all of its own.

One of our readers emailed me at my private email address….which I would love to know how he got it, but would be a story for another time. He had a great question which read: “I hope to begin Selection in the next few months and have been reading everything I can get my hands on about SOF (Good man) and I am very confused about the differences between what is FID (Foreign Internal Defense) and what is COIN (Counter Insurgency). Am I just stupid or is (sic) the two similar?”

First off my friend, no you are not stupid. There is always confusion as to what constitutes FID and COIN. In fact, most of the Army is probably confused about it as well. So, don’t worry about it. When you reach the course, hopefully, all of those questions will be answered for you.

However, for the purposes of this discussion, let’s take a look at FID as well as COIN and perhaps we can clear it up for you just a little bit. So first we’ll begin with Foreign Internal Defense or FID. What is it and what is the definition of FID?

Foreign Internal Defense is defined by the Army “Participation by civilian and military agencies of a government in any of the action programs taken by another government or other designated organization to free and protect its society from subversion, lawlessness, insurgency, terrorism, and other threats to its security”

FID is the backbone of what Special Forces does along with Unconventional Warfare (UW).In an earlier piece, I wrote about the art of teaching in Special Operations. And it is an art. The key to FID is to build rapport with the host nation (HN) forces. And having the language and cultural background to understand, adapt and thrive with the HN is vital. Special Forces troops receive anywhere between 4-6 months (minimum) of language training before they go the operational groups.

FID, like UW, isn’t that sexy, linear, short-term operation that makes for great YouTube videos but they stop wars from happening and the entire concept is for the SOF unit to work themselves out of a job and have the HN forces conducting unilateral operations on their own.

In a combat situation or wartime FID mission, the SOF units lead and sometimes creates a new unit where the need exists. The units are selected, trained and then led by SOF personnel. The next phase is the SOF unit then advises the HN units through the entire mission sequence and accompanies them on their missions. And once the HN forces are capable of conducting unilateral operations with no US assistance, then the mission is complete.

During peacetime or limited conflict, the HN will request US assistance through diplomatic channels which is then passed thru DOD down to USSOCOM. At times it can move quickly or be a long convoluted process. But once the troops are deployed it is a gradual operation where multiple deployments will take place, sometimes over several years. The HN and US SOF frequently build great relationships at the operational level.

And a successful peacetime FID operation stops the need to for the US to be forced to commit combat conventional forces in the future. It was widely discussed among SF troops for years that every SF officer should spend time among HN forces as a guest of their military. Although a great idea, the shortage of manpower has never allowed that to happen.

While FID is not an SOF-type mission only, SOF personnel are vastly better prepared to conduct peacetime FID operations over the conventional units. SOF are designed to facilitate operations not only by, with and through other forces and nations but also with politically sensitive agencies and organizations.

The Army Manual 3-24 defines counterinsurgency (COIN) as the “military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological, and civic actions taken by a government to defeat an insurgency.” The most bizarre thing about COIN is that in the Army’s own manual, it says “Insurgencies and its tactics are as old as warfare itself”, and history is chock full of insurgencies against occupying or hostile powers. The Hebrews under Moses rebelling against Egypt, nearly every country in the European and North African region rebelling against the rule of the Romans etc.

Yet the Army acts like COIN is a new phenomenon every time it faces it. And every time they do, they start from scratch and send hundreds of staff guys to re-write the manual and saddle the troops with a host of new acronyms to learn.

While there is an abundance of COIN doctrine and material available, each insurgency is different and the commanders have to recognize and use their situational awareness, good judgment and above all patience in achieving their goal.

COIN is a subset of FID and the ultimate goal of the US in a COIN environment is having it end in a FID mission. However, our enemies are not going to take on the conventional might of the US in a conventional type conflict like World War II because they know, they will surely lose. They instead enter into protracted, limited war. And it is this type of conflict that the US military has always struggled with. Why?

Because the US has always operated on the premise that to win, they must defeat the enemy on the field of battle and demand unconditional surrender. In an insurgency, the insurgent army may lose nearly every tactical battle but still achieve their goals strategically. Tactical actions in the COIN realm must be linked not only to strategic and operational military objectives but also to the host nation‘s essential political goals.

COIN to be effective requires decision making at all levels, not just at the high command of the military and political offices. The tactical level military units at the conventional level don’t normally have the cultural expertise and the language capability that the SOF units do.

But for the counterinsurgency to be effective and win requires political victory. That is the strategic sympathies of the population must be won. What we called in an earlier age the “hearts and minds” approach. Success isn’t just defeating the insurgents on the field of battle. But it is to identify the root causes that allowed the insurgency to exist in the first place. Then, along with the host nation, the US must implement sustainable political, economic, military, and social solutions.

The HN will be guided by their Internal Defense and Development (IDAD) goals of which FID or Security Assistance Forces (SAF) can be applied. Regardless, the COIN, to be effective must be partnered with the HN forces (military, political, economic) at all levels

So is it clearer now? Just like mud eh? Don’t worry as time goes on and hopefully you graduate the course, you’ll be asked to re-invent the wheel all over again. Someone will task a bunch of officers to rewrite the COIN and quite possibly the FID manuals and the Big Army will act like it never heard of it before. And while the definition of UW has and will change again, SF will continue to drive on in that realm as they are the best-equipped unit to handle that. But that is a piece for another time.

Featured image courtesy of DoD

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