Will COIN Work in Afghanistan?

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.


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