Even COIN Wars Are Hell
Posted by Eric Martin
One of the fundamental flaws at the root of COIN doctrine is the omnipresent tension between theory and practice with respect to the discipline that is expected of enormous armies. It is an attempt to make tigers into Paper Kittens.
In theory, soldiers implementing COIN show remarkable levels of restraint while operating under restrictive rules of engagement that often put their own lives in greater peril in order to avoid alienating the local population. This, in addition to being knowledgeable and sensitive to local customs and cultural - presumably, wherever "the locals" appear on a map.
In practice, soldiers on the ground are, understandably, mostly ignorant of the local population that they interact with and are prone to dehumanize them regardless as a survival mechanism and means of overcoming the moral reluctance to kill.
In addition, many deviate from the rigid prohibitions on the use of violence for a number of reasons: from the mental strain and breakdown brought on by the stresses of combat, to insubordination, to the stubbornness of survival instincts. And then, of course, there are the inevitable "bad apples" - the soldiers that, in every war, commit atrocities and take dehumanization to depraved depths.
This is just the most recent example of something that is, simply put, inextricable from war:
Twelve American soldiers face charges over a secret "kill team" that allegedly blew up and shot Afghan civilians at random and collected their fingers as trophies.
Five of the soldiers are charged with murdering three Afghan men who were allegedly killed for sport in separate attacks this year. Seven others are accused of covering up the killings and assaulting a recruit who exposed the murders when he reported other abuses, including members of the unit smoking hashish stolen from civilians. [...]
According to investigators and legal documents, discussion of killing Afghan civilians began after the arrival of Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs at forward operating base Ramrod last November. Other soldiers told the army's criminal investigation command that Gibbs boasted of the things he got away with while serving in Iraq and said how easy it would be to "toss a grenade at someone and kill them".
The problem, from a COIN perspective, is that while some soldiers' atrocities are discovered and punished, and others go undetected, the local population experiences them all. Even soldiers that aren't committing atrocities will inevitably deviate from the restrictive rules of engagement for other less morally dubious reasons. Further still, well-intentioned accidents happen even when adhering to the applicable rules of engagement.
In theory, war is a great tool to liberate oppressed peoples and if, in the process, an insurgency arises, then COIN is a fantastic means to win over the local population, toward the cause of the invading force and away from local factions.
In practice, neither is particularly feasible given the bluntness of the instrument employed, and the realities of what war becomes in the non-sanitized, non-euphemized day-to-day. Any time hundreds of thousands of well-armed foreign soldiers are engaged in war in a foreign locale, even if employing COIN doctrine, the locals will suffer greatly, die en masse and the survivors will blame the invading force. Which is only logical.
While that seems obvious, it is also a tautology that is easily forgotten or willfully ignored with remarkably consistency.