COIN in Helmand

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.

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One Response to “COIN in Helmand”

  1. William Bilek, M.D. Says:

    Our reason for being in Afghanistan is much less clear to me than that of being in Iraq. Many armies and empires have come to grief in the deserts and mountains of Afghanistan. Granted, there are bad people there. Well, there are bad people in Sudan, in the Congo, in Angola, in Tibet, etc. The “bad people” gave refuge to the masterminds behind 9/11. We have yet to find those masterminds, and the people who provided refuge have been punished, if not vanquished, over the last 8 years. It is not the role of America to modify a culture built up over centuries, regardless of how distatsteful it may be to us…as long as they realize that they must not threaten us again. We are capable of setting specific limits to what defines a threat. Pull out of Afghanistan, and make clear the consequences if those limits are crossed. Personally, a campaign of thorough carpet-bombing from 5 miles up in the air does not disturb my sense of morality.

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