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June 28, 2010

Putting COIN Under the Microscope
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over at abumuqawama Andrew Exum once again defends COIN practitioners:

Advocates and practitioners of counterinsurgency get unfairly tagged as an insular bunch closed to competing theories or criticism.

. . . If counterinsurgency as practiced by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps has developed into some kind of rigid step-by-step process, we’re not correctly applying the doctrine. Even tactical light infantry doctrine, like FM 7-8, allows for leaders on the ground to shape their tactics and operations depending on variables such as the mission, enemy, time, troops, terrain, civilians on the battlefield, etc. FM 3-24 is no different and in fact stresses the need for leaders to remain flexible and to adapt the doctrine to the war – not to try and force the environment to fit the doctrine.

Yet the precise opposite is happening on the ground in Afghanistan. As FM 3-24 reminds us, counterinsurgency is nearly impossible to wage successfully without support from a host country government that inspires loyalty and support among the population. Moreover, a dispassionate look at COIN experiences tells us of the importance of political will in waging a COIN fight and the challenges of trying to wage a counterinsurgency against an enemy that has an unmolested safe haven. All of these factors were well-known in the summer of 2009 when General McChrystal wrote his review of Afghanistan policy on which Andrew participated (there were even some of us who were writing about these problems at the time) - and all of them remain obvious now.

Yet, this did not stop General McChrystal from recommending to the President that ONLY a counter-insurgency strategy could work in Afghanistan. Is there a better example of forcing the environment to fit the doctrine? Afghanistan is the ultimate example of trying to put a square peg (COIN) into a round hole (Afghanistan). Andrew argues that COIN is adaptable and that commanders on the ground adapt to changing circumstances. Really? While one could argue this happened quite effectively in Iraq I've seen very little evidence of this in our Afghanistan policy. 

Indeed, folks like Andrew's boss John Nagl, fellow McChrystal review participant Stephen Biddle and war cheerleader Max Boot have consistently and forcefully argued that population centric COIN is the only way to achieve US goals in Afghanistan - or even more bizarrely as Nagl argued last week in the Daily News that COIN is clearly working in Afghanistan. These really don't sound like the words of a man seeking "pragmatic solutions for political and military decision-makers?" No they sound like the words of an individual maintaining adherence to a flawed strategy in the face of significant evidence to the contrary.

Or what about David Kilcullen who Exum claims is only trying to offer helpful advice to military leaders on how they might go about fighting a counter-insurgency in Afghanistan. Here's what he had to say last November in rejecting a middle course for Afghanistan:

Time is running out for us to make a decision. We can either put in enough troops to control the environment or we can credibly communicate our intention to leave. Either could work. Splitting the difference is not the way to go. If you have 40,000 troops it would be do-able. Anything less than 25,000 is throwing good money after bad.

So basically it's COIN or nothing - a simplistic binary choice that has for at least a year now been the favored rhetorical device of some COIN advocates who reject anything other than a population-centric counter-insurgency mission for Afghanistan.

And you know who else pretty clearly seemed to feel this way and demonstrated a slavish adherence to COIN doctrine in the face of evidence to the contrary and firmly rejected any sort of counter-terrorism approach for Afghanistan - General Stanley McChrystal. 

But Andrew goes further, claiming "some academic critics of counterinsurgency doctrine and strategies mistakenly assume that many theorist-practitioners who write about counterinsurgency will be fiercely protective over their theories." He goes on, "no serious theorist or practitioner of counterinsurgency does not welcome the scrutiny that has been applied to existing theories, doctrine and strategies."

I will give Andrew great credit for being open to questioning COIN doctrine. His recent post looking at some of the flawed assumptions underpinning Afghan strategy was an important contribution to public debate particularly since its never easy to question core assumptions in public. But the very notion that this has happened among other COIN practitioners to date or that it's happening in the halls of government . . . well what war has he been watching?

Andrew is right that the academic study of COIN theory is a very good thing - particularly since so much of what passes for modern counter-insurgency doctrine in the US military is ahistorical, doesn't reflect US interests and capabilities and badly misunderstands the process of building state legitimacy. 

What would be helpful for modern COIN doctrine is if those attempting to implement this misguided approach - and those who remain its strongest supporters - would actually listen to the critics and integrate their warning. But they're not. Instead you have President Obama solemnly declaring that the current strategy won't be changed or even more bizarrely decrying public "obsession" with the 18-month timeline for commencing withdrawals that he offered in his West Point speech.

There are giant holes in our current counter-insurgency strategy for Afghanistan and the past six months has further exposed these flaws - even more deeply confirming many of the predictions made by COIN opponents last fall. Yet, while the pundit world slowly seems to be waking up to these problems the policymakers appear to be doubling down on a failed strategy and offering the same divorced from reality statements on Afghanistan that we saw about Iraq in 2006.

And you know what: that might make for a good blog post.


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How is the strategy that Obama and McChrystal pursued different from that recommended by the National Security Network in February 2009?

Very well explained.I would only say Obama and his team are spinning their wheels trying to devise a policy to right the sinking ship, but the most sensible solution, for Afghans and U.S. citizens, is to start planning a way out.

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Michael, you are a clear voice in the wilderness on the importance of a functional "host government" to COIN doctrine. Most people, I gather, haven't even read FM 3-24. Hang in there.

I would just add that the business of militarily overthrowing a foreign government and then calling the resulting (inevitable) resistance an "insurgency" is more than just wrong semantics, it throws into question the whole bogus concept of "counterinsurgency." Putting lipstick on a pig.

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