12 February 2011

Viva la COIN?

Mark "Zenpundit" Safranski muses on the recent dearth of counterinsurgency writing in major journals, as well as General Petraeus' recent heavy-handed tactics in Afghanistan:
[Is COIN dead?] By that, I mean contemporary, mid-2000’s ”pop-centric” COIN theory as expressed in FM 3-24 - is it de facto dead as USG policy or is COIN theory formally evolved to officially embrace strong elements of CT, targeted assassinations, FID, “open-source counterinsurgency” and even bare-knuckled conventional warfare tactics?
Mind you, I have nothing against pragmatic flexibility and think that, for example, moves to arm more Afghan villagers for self-defense are realistic efforts to deal with the Taliban insurgency, and I prefer USG officials speaking frankly about military conditions as they actually exist. Doctrinal concepts should not be used to create a ”paint-by-numbers” military strategy - it is a starting point that should be expected to evolve to fit conditions. 
But having evolved operations and policy as far as the USG military and USG national security agencies have, with the current draconian budgetary restraints looming - are we still “doing COIN”? Or is it dead?
It's a question asked by counterinsurgency experts such as Dr. David Ucko.  Even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and other DOD insiders seem hesitant to partake in future counterinsurgency endeavors.  There's merit to their case.  Simply having a counterinsurgency doctrine doesn't mean that we should be eager to rush off and implement it in the far-flung corners of the globe.  As events in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown us, counterinsurgency is time-consuming, expensive, and subject to powers far beyond the counterinsurgent's control.

But while nations should attempt to avoid such conflicts when possible, even the greatest strategists stumble upon rebellions, insurrections, and insurgencies.  In fact, the word guerrilla--of Spanish origin--reminds us that no less a genius than Napoleon Bonaparte inadvertently found himself embroiled in an insurgency during the Peninsular War.

Yet, the world of counterinsurgency has grown quiet as of late.  What accounts for its seeming decline?  I've come up with a few factors.  
  • Time.  Counterinsurgency is a long-term endeavor.  According to a recent RAND study, successful campaigns in the post-Cold War era last around a decade.  Unfortunately, time is running out in Afghanistan:  despite years of neglect, the NATO-led coalition is expected to hand over responsibility to the Afghan government by July, with a full withdrawal by 2014.  The compressed timeline doesn't allow for the "full-blown" counterinsurgency campaign many generals advocated in the summer of 2009.  
  • The Karzai Government.  Most COIN literature, such as the US military's Counterinsurgency Field Manual, stresses the importance of host-nation legitimacy.  Yet, Hamid Karzai remains in power only after a massively fraudulent election, and runs a government sometimes referred to as a "kleptocracy".  Tell me how this ends?  
  • The Role of "Our Valuable Ally".  Not even a fiction writer could have conceived of the ridiculous "Catch-22" surrounding Pakistan's role in the Afghanistan War.  Our "valuable ally" permits the US to hunt Taliban and al-Qaeda figures with Predator drones, and controls many of the key logistical supply routes into Afghanistan.  Yet, the role of Pakistan's ISI in supporting the Taliban insurgency is painfully evident time and time again.  The US sends billions of dollars in humanitarian and military aid to the Pakistani government, only to see it used against itself.  Okay, to be fair, a good chunk of that money doesn't get used against us.  Rather, it's simply imbezzled by corrupt Pakistani officials.    
  • The Taliban Insurgency vs. Al-Qaeda.  You might remember that the War in Afghanistan was originally designed to root out elements of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, then harbored by the Taliban.  However, after the Battle of Tora Bora, the core leadership of both al Qaeda and the Taliban escaped into Pakistan, where they are presumed to remain to this day.  In the past decade, however, both groups have mutated.  Many believe there is little to no correlation or collaboration between al-Qaeda, an international movement, primarily Arab; and the Taliban, a Pashtun movement with more localized goals.  Moreover, al-Qaeda acts through "franchise" movements in Yemen, Africa, and Somalia, though these groups tend to have more localized ideologies as well.  Counterinsurgency's inability to deal with the al-Qaeda problem blights its reputation.  
  • Operational vs. Strategic.  Counterinsurgency was a "bottom-up", tactical and operational innovation, designed to compensate for strategic ambivalence, particularly in Iraq.  However, counterinsurgency is but a means to an end.  Counterinsurgency is useless if it does not coincide with larger strategic objectives.
  • A Focus on Democracy.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were conceived within the rubric of neoconservative rhetoric, which placed a premium on democracy-building.  Yet, democracy tends to take hold only after certain economic, social, and cultural benchmarks are met:  benchmarks largely absent in Afghanistan.  With massive ethnic strife, and little history of a strong, central government in Kabul, America's attempts at installing its own style of democracy are a Herculean task.  Would counterinsurgency work better if a dictatorship enjoyed more legitimacy?
  • The Underdog Syndrome.  Being a COINdinista was fun when it was a "fringe" activity.  Now that it's "in" (and misapplied at that) it's lost a lot of its allure.  Hey, it's not hip being a square.          

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