Implementing COIN in Afghanistan

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.

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One Response to “Implementing COIN in Afghanistan”

  1. William Bilek, M.D. Says:

    The U.S. cannot, and should not, be the world’s policeman. The U.S. has interests. In Afghanistan, America’s interest lies in preventing that failed state from again becoming a haven for terrorists who would target us. we have no dog in the fight among Pashtuns, Tajiks, Taliban, drug lords, etc., and we will be caught in the middle of a zero-sum game if we stay involved. Let them fight among themselves, and settle their own accounts.

    We should get out now, with the clear warning that if we so much as feel a threat emanating from that country again, “we’ll be back”. In that case, we officially declare war, and prosecute it as we did against Germany and Japan 70 years ago. America has “human rights” just as Afghans do; our rights include the right not to be attacked, and have our civilians targeted. And if Afghan civilian Pashtuns, Tajiks, Taliban and drug lords cannot work together to prevent that threat to us, then they are all “the enemy”.

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