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Tossing the Afghan COIN | The Nation

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Tossing the Afghan COIN

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As long as there has been war, as long as one nation has sought to impose its military will on another, there have been insurgents... and there have also been counterinsurgents.

About the Author

Michael A. Cohen
Michael A. Cohen, a senior fellow at the American Security Project, blogs regularly on counterinsurgency and the war in...

It was the ancient Romans who popularized what has become an oft-imitated means of dealing with recalcitrant and subjugated peoples—the so-called Roman Method of repression to quell the noncompliant. Since those long-ago days, numerous countries and empires (from autocracies to democracies) have used similar counterinsurgency (COIN) tactics. Indeed, the history of COIN is a depressing and unremitting tale of coercion and violence generally aimed not just at armed insurgents but at civilian populations as well.

The United States has not been immune from such conflicts—or their brutality. Counterinsurgent fights were waged at home against Native American tribes and in Central America, the Philippines and Vietnam. These small wars are in some manner the defining element of the American Way of War.

In recent years, however, the US military has not only rediscovered counterinsurgency but reinvented it, first in Iraq and now in Afghanistan. To listen to the American military or, better, to read the Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual, FM 3-24, is to hear a tale of COIN's bloody legacy of coercion and violence magically transformed.

According to this new telling, the key to winning COIN conflicts is in protecting civilians and providing a better future for them—that is, winning hearts and minds via civic action rather than military force. As written in FM 3-24, counterinsurgency fights are population-centric, not enemy-centric, and are defined by an extraordinarily broad array of capabilities, "political, economic, military, paramilitary, psychological, and civic actions."

On the most basic level, the key to COIN victory rests in protecting the population, providing good governance, extending the legitimacy of the host government and gaining the trust of the people. This notion of warfighting has become so internalized in US military thinking that even the past has been rewritten. New assessments of conflicts in Malaya and Vietnam, conducted by COIN advocates, confidently assert that civic action, not coercion—much less forced separation of insurgents from the population—turned the tide of those conflicts. In the case of Vietnam, COIN advocates argue that once the United States turned to counterinsurgency, the direction of the war shifted; and that had the United States had the resilience to see the fight through, the embrace of population-centric COIN would have led the way to success.

Much of this new take on COIN is a result of the US military's experience in Iraq, where, as the argument goes, a focus on protecting civilians and standing up the Iraqi government led to a decrease in civilian casualties. The supposed success of COIN tactics in Iraq, twinned with the 2007 surge of 30,000 US troops, led to the claim that these successes could be replicated in Afghanistan. Indeed, by the fall of 2009 Gen. Stanley McChrystal offered a strategic review of the situation in Afghanistan that concluded that a population-centric counterinsurgency—and only that strategy—could grasp victory from the jaws of defeat.

It is this approach that the United States began using in 2009 and the first half of 2010. Upon being named Afghanistan commander, McChrystal declared in Congressional testimony that it was more important to protect civilians than to kill insurgents. NATO officials even discussed the possibility of creating a new medal for "courageous restraint" for soldiers who take measures to avoid civilian casualties.

Indeed, COIN has become increasingly fetishized in US military thinking, training and guidance. Col. Gian Gentile, a frequent critic of population-centric counterinsurgency, recounts a recent experience listening to a three-star Army general telling West Point graduates that "what they needed to be good at when they went out into the field army—was establishing 'trusting relationships' with local populations." As Gentile acidly notes, "One would have liked soon-to-be-lieutenants told that they must be proficient in their basic branch skills: infantry and armor, basic fire and maneuver with their platoon as part of a maneuver company/team; artillery, fire support; logistics, logistical support; and so on."

The military's focus on COIN has been reflected in more than just rhetoric. When troops were sent into the town of Marja in Helmand province in February, the element of surprise was purposely given away. Military commanders made clear their intention to take the town and their hope that Taliban forces would flee, thus protecting civilians from being caught in the cross-fire.

Under the logic of COIN, such efforts to protect civilians are not only the right thing to do but are essential to military success, because safe and secure civilians will throw in their lot with the government and provide crucial intelligence for use in targeting insurgents. By securing the people, counterinsurgents can win the competition for the loyalty of the population.

This method of placing civilians front and center in military deliberations may on the surface seem quite progressive (indeed, COIN advocates have repeatedly made this argument). But it hasn't worked out that way. The United Nations recorded this past summer that the number of Afghan civilians killed in the first six months of the year jumped by a depressing 31 percent; in southern Afghanistan, where the war's heaviest fighting is taking place, civilian casualties (based on hospital admissions) have increased dramatically. While military officials are quick to argue that these increased deaths are largely the result of insurgent actions (and they are correct), this doesn't mean that local Afghans don't blame the United States and NATO. Recent opinion polling of Afghans suggests they do.

In fact, efforts to protect the Afghan population are failing. According to recent press accounts, insurgents in Kandahar province have carried out a successful campaign of intimidation and violence against local citizens. Writing recently in the Christian Science Monitor, Julius Cavendish reported that Taliban assassinations of officials there have become so pervasive that more than 600 government jobs remain unfilled. The situation in Marja—ten months after US and Afghan troops entered the town in what was billed as a major element of the military's counterinsurgency strategy—also remains challenging.

Beyond the obvious difficulty of making protecting lives a priority in an active war zone, it has become evident over the past year that Afghanistan is a spectacularly poor choice for a population-centric COIN campaign. An effective counterinsurgency relies, in large measure, on a competent and legitimate host country government. Afghanistan has neither. Corruption is so bad that the UN Office on Drugs and Crime has estimated that "drugs and bribes are the two largest income generators in Afghanistan."

Afghanistan's security services are unable to hold areas cleared by US forces, and Afghan police are even less effective and lack the support of a functioning legal system. Making matters more difficult is the continued presence of undisturbed Afghan Taliban safe havens across the border in Pakistan. Finally, there are the Taliban, who have demonstrated a brutal willingness to use violence to cow the civilian populace into not cooperating with the United States, NATO or their own government.

A successful COIN campaign in Afghanistan is predicated on an extraordinary confluence of events: first, militarily reversing the Taliban's momentum without causing significant civilian casualties; second, standing up the Afghan government and security forces so they are able to hold and build on the gains made by Western troops; third, minimizing the impact of Taliban sanctuaries across the border, in part by convincing the Pakistani government to reduce its support for them. And all this must be done while operating under Obama's July 2011 deadline for commencing the withdrawal of US troops.

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