Archive for July, 2009

Implementing COIN in Afghanistan

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War with tags , , , , on July 31, 2009 by whatafteriraq

In the most recent posting in this space, questions about the application of the 2007 Army-Marine Corps counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy were raised. Among the most serious concerns surrounded the doctrine’s own statement that a successful COIN application required a ratio of 20 counterinsurgents per 1,000 citizens in the target country, which would require approximately 660,000 anti-Taliban troops in Afghanistan.

The COIN force in the country does not even come close to that number (about 90,000 foreigners and an Afghan force the size of which, in operational terms, no one discusses), and moreover, it is not clear how those numbers can be achieved. The Obama administration has suggested that throwing more U.S. troops into the fray is not a route it desires to pursue, possibly seeing a parallel between the dynamics of this process and what happened in Vietnam between 1965 and 1968. There is an apparent quandary here.

General Stanley A. McChrystal either read the questions of these numbers in this space (extremely unlikely) or has looked at the COIN manual and done the math himself (more likely), and he has come up with a solution: more Afghan forces. To that end, he suggests that the Afghan National Army (ANA) and security forces be increased to around 400,000 which, along with foreign participants, at least begins to approach the doctrine’s own manpower dictates. Problem solved?

Not really. The problem, as has been suggested here over the past year, is both quantitative and qualitative. Efforts to recruit a more substantial force have been going on for several years and have yet to produce numbers even vaguely approximating those being advocated by McChrystal. Moreover, the Taliban have taken a page from the Iraq insurgency’s playbook and have begun intimidating potential recruits through terror tactics like attacking recruiting stations with IEDs. Where enough “good young men” are going to come from is not at all clear.

The qualitative problem is even more fundamental. As suggested several times in this space, the problem of recruitment is basically from which tribal groups recruits are drawn. The Taliban, after all, is almost exclusively Pashtun, and an effective ANA and security force that does not represent the Pashtun at least in proportion to their numbers in the general population is almost certain to fail. The current guidelines for the ANA is that 38 percent of recruits must be Pashtun; the government (both U.S. and Afghan) do not publicize if this goal is being attained, making one suspicious it is not. If the Pashtuns are not a major part part of Afghan government security forces, the effect is to make the government’s effort effectively an anti-Pashtun effort. Such a coalition is, if Afghan history is any guide, almost certain to fail.

If the McChrystal plan has any hope of success, it must be based on a concerted effort to recruit as many Pashtuns as possible and must, to some large degree, be the result of a successful contest for recruits against the Taliban, principally in the rural areas of the country where the Taliban are strongest and the government weakest. Such an effort will be daunting at best, and is likely to be resisted, passively or actively, by non-Pashtun elements in the government and military, especially Tajiks who currently have disproportionate representation in the defense effort.  One hopes and assumes that McChrystal and those around him understand and appreciate these distinctions. If he does not, creating a larger Afghan force not only will not make the COIN more effective, it will probably make it worse by making the current civil war a more explicitly Pashtun-anti-Pashtun affair. The last thing the United States should want is to be the leading supporter of an anti-Pashtun war in Afghanistan.

One can, of course, question whether the McChrystal plan is realistic under any circumstances. One of the major vulnerabilities of the COIN strategy is its failure to take into account that outsiders can and usually are part of the problem as well as the solution in COIN situations. The implicit effect of this failure is to make the COINs feel they can be more effective than they in fact can be, notably in their impact on the loyalties of the target population (the battle for hearts and minds). In that regard, it is not at all clear that the Afghan people will rise in enthusiastic support of joining a military effort because it is proposed by an outsider (the United States) whom they would like simply to leave them alone. If such a force is to be raised, it has to be an Afghan initiative, and the recruits need to join (in correct ethnic proportions) because they support the government and oppose the insurgents. That is a tall order indeed.


Will COIN Work in Afghanistan?

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Current Events in Iraq with tags , , , on July 19, 2009 by whatafteriraq

The Obama administration has invested a great deal (one can argue too much) of its national security capital in the war on Afghanistan, and the chief instrument for realizing that investment has been the application of counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine to the situation. This application, in turn, is based on putting into action the Army and Marine Corps’ Counterinsurgency Field Manual (Army FM-3-24 and Marine Warfighting Publication No.3-33.5). That document was first distributed in 2006 and published with various introductory add-ons by the University of Chicago Press in 2007. The document is most closely associated with Central Comman (CENTCOM) commander General David Petraeus, who supervised its writing while at Ft. Leavenworth and who has overall responsibility for the Afghanistan operation. The application of COIN to Afghanistan, moreover, is widely advertised as an extension of the so-called “surge” in Iraq.

The question is, will the COIN doctrine work in Afghanistan? Answering that question begins with a few comments on the overall doctrine as reflected in the book. As someone who wrote extensively on the topic in the 1990s, including three books (Distant Thunder, UnCivil Wars,and When America Fights) and two monographs for the US Army Strategic Studies Institute, I have some personal reflections on the document.

The first is that although the document is described by Harvard researcher Sarah Sewall (who helped draft it) in the “New Introduction” as “revolutionary,” it is nothing of the sort. Rather, the manual does codify a number of observations about how to conduct counterinsurgency that arose from the Vietnam postmortem of the 1980s and 1990s, but it adds essentially nothing to that debate. As a contribution to the debate on the subject, it does reflect fairly closely the approach  the Marines attempted to implement early in the Vietnam conflict–the so-called enclave approach of capturing, holding and securing territory and moving gradually out from the secured enclaves–and were rebuffed in executing by an Army more clearly interested in killing guerrillas than in waging the political battle for the “hearts and minds of men.” The document does come down clearly on the side of winning hearts and minds, which may be revolutionary to the Army, but not to anyone else.

Second, a great deal of the document is a direct repudiation of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and some of his more harebrained ideas about how to conduct modern war–basically blitzkrieg on the cheap in terms of investment in manpower and time. The Manual agrees with General Shinseki, who was sacked for arguing we needed lots more people in Iraq than Rummy would allow. The Manual is quite specific: COIN is manpower intensive and it takes a long time. Once again, hardly an insight, but at least a poke in Rummy’s eye.

Third, the manual is escessively mechanical in its approach. One gets little sense, for instance, on what American COIN operators are to do when they encounter disgruntled civilians of the country in which the operations are to take place, other than fairly vague entreaties about winning loyalties. I suspect that if I were in the field, the manual would provide me relatively little detailed direction in carrying out the pacification mission that is central to COIN success.

The manual also errs by omission in at least two critical ways. First and most fundamentally, it fails to recognize that the outsider COINs are probably part of the problem as well as the solution. Foreign forces, no matter how well intentioned are, after all, foreigners,and their presence is not going to be universally appreciated, either by those who are suspicious of foreigners (which includes most Afghans) and those whose causes are harmed by their presence. Moreover, the need to invite foreigners in to defeat the insurgents says something basically negative about the HN (host nation) government being helped (e.g. if the government was doing its job, why would it need foreign assistance?). Moreover, those who collaborate with the outsiders are going to be viewed by some as, well, collaborators, and the presence of those troops will in turn help insurgent recruitment. The manual is moot on this dynamic.

Fifth, the manual needs a “pre-manual” that talks about political aspects of becoming involed in COIN. In other words, are there places and situations that are ripe for involvement and others that are not. In what kinds of  situations is COIN success likely or unlikely? These are not questions for a military doctrinal publication, but a companion is necessary if one is not to consider all situations equally attractive for COIN operations.

With these limitations in mind, is Afghanistan ripe for COIN success? I think the manual argues implicitly that it is not, for three reasons. First, Afghanistan is too big for this kind of operation. The manual clearly states thateffective COIN requires one counterinsurgent for every 1,000 members of the population being protected. In Afghanistan, that means a COIN force of 660,000, a number so wildly in excess to what will ever be available to be disqualifying in and of itself. Second, the doctrine argues the heart of success is the political conversion of the population, but it fails to discuss who is going to do the converting. If it leaves this to U.S. counterinsurgents, the battle is lost. As the manual itself argues, an additional criterion for success is a good government the population can be loyal to. It is not at all clear Afghanistan has or is in any danger of acquiring such a government. Finally, the doctrine entreats that COIN is slow work and that its success will require considerable perseverance. A decade’s commitment or more is often suggested for Afghanistan: is there any danger the American public will support an Afghanistan war still going on in 2018 or 2019? I doubt it.

The US government likes to draw the anaolgy between Iraq and Afghanistan: COIN “worked in Iraq” and can be transferred to Afghanistan. Two rejoinders: the war in Iraq is not over, and will not be concluded until after the US leaves and the Iraqis sort things out,possibly violently. It’s not clear we “won.” Second, Afghanistan and Iraq are alike only in the sense of being in the same area of the world. One experience does not imply another.

Will COIN lead to victory in Afghanistan? The case has not been made.

NOTE: I am going on vacation for a couple weeks. The next post will be the first week of August.

COIN in Helmand

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, US Occupatio with tags , , , on July 12, 2009 by whatafteriraq

The first major test of the new Army-Marine counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy in Afghanistan is now being undertaken in the small poppy-growing province of Helmand. In some ways, it resembles the application of the Iraqi “surge” in an Afghan environment. Whether it will work remains to be seen.

The current effort involves the insertion of 4,000 American troops, nearly all of them Marines, into Helmand. Their purpose is not to see how many Taliban they can kill, because such an approach would directly contradict the underlying philosophy of the new COIN doctrine, which elevates political accomplishment over battlefield triumphs. Rather, the purpose is to secure as much of the province as possible from Taliban control and intimidation, thereby creating an atmosphere in which the people are shielded from the insurgents and can reestablish some sense of normalcy to their lives courtesy of the United States and the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai.

The use of Marines in this task is more than coincidental. The COIN doctrine contains significant elements of the so-called “enclave” approach favored by the Marines in Vietnam but ultimately rejected as an overall approach to that war. The emphasis is back in the COIN strategy, and that is exactly what the Americans say theyare trying to do. The goal, of course, is to “liberate”–in the sense of securing–as much of Helmand province as possible for participation in Afghan elections scheduled for later in the year.

Will the strategy work? If it is conceptualized as a demonstration project of limited scope, it may. There are, however, two major problems if the intent is broader, something like a model for the entire country.

The first problem, which is probably politically insurmountable, is the number of forces necessary to implement the COIN approach to Afghanistan. According to published COIN doctrine, the preferred ratio of counterinsurgent forces to the population is 20 per 1,000 inhabitants. In a country with 33,000,000 citizans (the population of Afghanistan), that translates into a counterinsurgent force, native and outsider, of roughly 660,000. Current numbers are around 100,000 (actually a bit less) outside forces, and this is unlikely to rise much: NATO forces are slowly withdrawing, and additional American forces do little more than replace their numbers. The projected size of the Afghan National Army (ANA) is about 130,000, but it is currently nowhere near that number. The only way that a force adequate to meet the ratio can be assembled is to assume that only about a third or less of the country needs pacification and occupation, and that is an unrealistic projection. The fact that the numbers necessary for the optimal ratio for COIN success will never be approximated raises serious questions about the viability of the strategy, but that is a subject for a subsequent posting.

The other problem is that Helmand province is in the heart of the poppy-growing region of Afghanistan, and there will almost certainly be a conjunction between the pacification program and suppression of poppy culture. Since the growing of poppy is the only profitable enterprise in the region and no substitute “crops” have been indentified that yield anything like the revenues from poppies, pursuing both objectives could effectively work at cross purposes with one another in Helmand.

The Helmand COIN campaign is the opening gambit of the new Obama emphasis on the Afghan war. It will be watched and covered very closely, and much ballyhoo will undoubtedly accompany every apparent success it sustains. In this case, the “atmospherics” could be highly deceptive, because it is not clear either that the COIN strategy will work in Afghanistanor that anything else will. That is not a very optimistic assessment but, as will be discussed in the next post, it may be the only realistic one.

Bush’s Missile Defense, One More Time

Posted in " missile defenses, Russia, Russian-American relations with tags , , , on July 6, 2009 by whatafteriraq

President Obama is in Moscow meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, with the shadow Vladimir Putin not far from their sight. The highlight of the talks, which are aimed at improving relations with Russia typically soured by the Bush administration, center on nuclear arms agreements, which were at the heart of Cold War negotiations and were one the areas that led to ending the Cold War confrontation. As usual, missile defenses (in this case Bush’s proposed “light” defense in Poland and the Czech Republic) are the centerpiece of these discussions.

A point of honesty is due here. I have been a consistent opponent of missile defenses since the 1960s, when they were first proposed. My opposition has four bases that I can rattle off easily. First, they are expensive; President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), pegged at a helf-trillion or so (when a trillion dollars seemed like a lot) was the mother lode of this expense. Second, they do not work–or at least we have never built one that does against a real live attack seeking to overcome them. This, of course, makes their expense more dubious. Third, even if they were to work, they are easy to overcome, simply by building enough extra offensive systems (which are invariably cheaper than the defenses) to overwhelm them. This problem is progressive, meaning that an arms spiral of offense-defense will always favor the offense. Fourth, they are provocative and destabilizing; if they actually can be made to work, they would effectively disarm the offensive capabilities of the side at which they are aimed. That sounds like a much better idea on the surface than it really is. All the arguments for defenses deny these points, add the sentimental argument that we have to try to save the “women and chill’uns” (a task best accomplished by avoiding war altogether), and are, in my judgment, wrong.

Back to Moscow. The talks there are focused on two matters. One is the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START). That agreement (START I) was negotiated in 1991 and will run out in December of this year. Everyone agrees it is in our interest to keep START going and to reach a new agreement that will reduce nuclear arsenals more; the only disagreement is the levels at which reductions will occur (the Russians want a lower bottom line than do the Americans). The Russians, who have always opposed missile defenses, argue that progress on START requires doing something about the Bush missile defense plan: no BMD agreement, no START.

Should the Obama administration bow to Russian pressure and cancel the Polish-Czech system? A positive answer includes the argument that the system is basically worthless (meaning we don’t give up much) and is aimed at a threat (Iran) that does not exist. From a national security vantage point, not much is being sacrificed. Proponents of the Bush plan suggest that the screen could work and that buckling in to the Russian demands is less than macho. These proponents, mostly Republicans, could make life miserable for Obama were he to accede to Russian demands.

Is there a compromise? Yes. There are two possiblities on the table. One is to move the system: radars in Turkey, launchers in Romania. The Russians are no more enthused about this than they are the Czech-Polish deployment plan. The other is to base the system on American Aegis ships, which are developing a theater missile defense system scheduled for deployment in 2015. The Russians do not object to this possibility, and it poses no additional national defense peril, since the Iranians cannot possibly have a deployable system before then (if they ever do). Declaring a deployment pause until 2015 thus seems a reasonable compromise.

The missile defense issue does not rise to the level of national security concern that, say, Iraq and Agfhanistan do, but improving U.S.-Russian relations may, so the visit is not inconsequential. It would, of course, be much simpler were it not for the persistent missile defense issue, which seems never to go away, no matter how badly one might wish it would. Support of missile defenses has been a nagging thorn in the national security debate for over 40 years now, and it has reared its head one more time. Let’s hope for a quiet burial this time!