On CT vs. COIN

On CT vs. COIN

by Andrew Exum, Small Wars Journal Op-Ed

On CT vs. COIN (Full PDF Article)

In advance of the Obama Administration's forthcoming review of policies toward Afghanistan and Pakistan, much of the commentary has focused on whether or not the Obama Administration will adopt a long-term, hugely expensive population-centric counter-insurgency (COIN) campaign or whether the administration will instead opt for a lower-cost counter-terror (CT) strategy. Fred Kaplan, in a typically well-informed piece for Slate, framed the debate as an either/or dichotomy in which the Obama Administration had to choose one or the other vis a vis Afghanistan.

The distinction between COIN and CT, however, is poorly understood. For one, there is no hard and fast dichotomy between the two -- a fact that Kaplan and other longtime defense correspondents largely understand but which policy-makers must understand as well. If what Kaplan writes is true, and policy-makers are stuck thinking of their policy options as either/or propositions, we are in more trouble in Afghanistan than I thought.

On CT vs. COIN (Full PDF Article)

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While the author hasn't said anything new, he gives us a pragmatic reason for his argument. Seeing first had the initial woes of not understanding the nature of Insurgency and the asymmetry of our current Wars, he bravely admits were he personally went wrong and explains the solution by demonstrating the philosophical difference between old mentalities and newly cemented doctrine. We will go far when we as Warriors admit our mental errors and learn from them. This is the path to success.

Nicely put. I was a platoon commander of Marine grunts during two deployments (Iraq for the invasion in '03, Afghanistan in '04), and a rifle company XO in Iraq in '08. We carried our kinetic mindset from the first deployment into the second. To borrow from Steve Coll's book, we really were chasing ghosts in Afghanistan. When we did have good opportunities to properly conduct COIN in Afghanistan, such as during a two-month rotation with SOF in eastern Afghanistan, it seemed clear to me that CT operations were the focus of effort. The PRT at our mission support site was an afterthought. The GPF, SOF, PRT and OGA met every night for a BUB, but there was no unity of effort. In Iraq last year, we were finally able to pull together all the elements of our national power to create the desired effects in our battlespace. I say "nearly" because the one element that was left out of our loop were SOF. Despite our mutual efforts (we met more than a few times during our 7 months in country to help them learn about the personalities in our AO), we often first learned about their activities when frantic Iraqi Police alerted us about being attacked. Adding that final piece of the puzzle can save us all from tremendous pain as we prepare for the road ahead in Afghanistan.

I'm more concerned now after the administration announced a counter-narcotics strategy. That sounds like our main effort is now the symptom of societal breakdown, rather than the cause.