by Jason Thomas
Editor's Note: Jason Thomas takes a look at the romance of the COIN doctrine and the unwarranted complexity and confusion of ends it has led us toward in Afghanistan. He argues for a more simplistic approach to the problem in Afghanistan. As we grope in the dark for a way out of Afghanistan, perhaps his thoughts are timely.
In the midst of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan we were desperate to identify with our own Lawrence, Galula, Templar, Kitson and Thompson. We found them in the likes of General Petraeus, Kilcullen, General McChrystal and Nagle. Confident in their vision based on the romance of previous revolutionary wars. In their ray of light Galula’s eight steps of COIN made logical sense, even if as Grégor Mathias recently showed, much of Galula’s success was in the eye of the beholder. Not surprising since General Patraeus, believes in the premise of perception as opposed to reality as he wrote in his 1987 doctoral dissertation, "what policymakers believe to have taken place in any particular case is what matters more than what actually occurred." This paradigm should never be the basis of any war by a free and open democratic society. It only gratifies the Rambo do-gooder in us all, which seems like a good idea until one is killed or wounded.
COIN also appealed to the military and intellectual apparatchik’s psychological fallibility in wanting to demonstrate their ability to implement blindingly complex tactical and activity based nation building. In doing so they failed what Jim Collins, calls the Hedgehog Concept – doing one thing and doing it well. In Afghanistan we should have determined that as long as the Taliban do not let al Qaeda or a new form of non-state actor use Afghanistan as a base to train and launch terrorist attacks on our national interests then we will leave them alone. Instead, the romance created one of the most costly and inconsistent strategic approaches to any war in the modern age.
Something old, something borrowed but nothing new
A 1962 Rand Corporation Symposium on Counterinsurgency was held in Washington DC at the height of the Kennedy Administration’s Vietnam offensive. The conference included the legends of previous COIN campaigns such as David Galula, Frank Kitson, Col. Wendell Fertig, Lt. Col. Samuel Wilson and Brigadier General Edward Lansdale. The themes, discussions and shared experiences could have been held today.
The participants agreed that counterinsurgent’s need to:
- Identify and redress the political, economic, military, and other issues fuelling the insurgency
- Gain control over and protect the population, which the counterinsurgent must see as the prime center of gravity in any counterinsurgency conflict
- Establish an immediate permanent security presence in all built-up areas cleared of enemy forces
- Accumulate extensive, fine-grained human and other intelligence on insurgent plans, modes of operation, personnel, and support networks
- Avoid actions that might antagonize the population
- Convince the population that they represent the “winning side” and intend to prevail until complete victory is secured
The modern day COIN warriors, including the authors of the Counterinsurgency FM 3-24, have merely re-packaged what previous military leaders and theorists already concluded.
The irony with modern day COIN as a military doctrine is that it is a theory either built from military failures (Algeria, Vietnam), wars where the insurgents won (China) or where the counterinsurgent uprooted an entire population (Malaya) or brutalized their way to victory under a media free zone (Sri Lanka). Can you imagine the US-NATO forces being permitted by global public opinion to impose a massive population resettlement campaign as in Malaya, the 1982 Syrian Government massacre of the Muslim Brotherhood uprising or the aerial bombing campaign in Sri Lanka? Since the end of 2009 the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) has implemented the Malaya solution by bussing thousands of civilians out of the Tamil communities to the other side of the country. The Sri Lankan Government also terrorised the population into silence by targeting and eliminating business people, doctors, academics, teachers and others who were suspected of sympathising with the cause. Reflecting on Galula’s statements at the 1962 Rand Symposium, the GOSL implemented the tactics of the insurgents by winning the “battle of silence”. That is, eliminating supports of the LTTE within the social, professional and academic classes in society. On closer assessment it appears what has been claimed to be successful COIN campaigns had more to do with how prepared the government or defending regime was to cross moral boundaries. As Martin Van Creveld argues the fundamental challenge in a counterinsurgency campaign is neither military nor political, but moral.
Putting aside the romantic tales of gallantry, in theory as a conceptual framework, COIN appears to make sense. However, there is no magic, mystery or romance with COIN. It is no more than a framework for maintaining a stable, civil society. It is what most governments do every day. Shell has been doing it in Nigeria for years, minus the kinetic elements, with mixed results. Under John Rawls’ Difference Principle the pillars of COIN are what a rational group of people would select behind the veil of ignorance; a hypothetical scenario where a group of people would choose the benefits and burdens of a society, if prevented from knowing (the veil of ignorance) what position in life they would end up. Look at any political party’s election policy agenda and apart from the military aspects it reads like the indicators for measuring success used in the Brookings Institute Afghanistan Index. Yet even if the practice is as good as the theory, as with any government, not everyone is actually very good at implementing policy even in a modern economy. On average those who write government policy are poor at understanding the practical consequences or the perverse incentives their policies create. As historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. astutely pointed out in his 1977 biography of Robert Kennedy, the notion that reforms can be carried out in a wartime situation by a beleaguered regime is “the fatal fallacy in the liberal theory of counterinsurgency, with the United States so often obliged to work through repressive local leadership, the reform component dwindled into ineffectual exhortation.”
Let us say COIN is as feasible in practice as it is made out to be in theory. The reforms it demands conflict with our short electoral timeframes even in a time of peace and in a modern economy; blunting any chance of long term strategic planning and implementation. As Van Creveld contends, other than moral boundaries time is the key factor in counterinsurgency. The difficult decisions for a government are those that will not benefit voters for years to come. Investments in many aspects of Sewage, Water, Electricity, Academics, Trash, Medical Unemployment and Security (SWEAT-MUS), may not benefit the electorate for years to come. This is a hard political sell when most households are focused on paying bills and day-to-day job security. The same short-term political weakness was illustrated with the Obama Afghanistan surge in late 2009. The surge of troops peaked mid-June 2010 and by June 2011 plans were already in place to begin the withdrawal.
The full application of COIN involving military, governance, law and order, infrastructure, building the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and development only really started in Afghanistan with the full attention of the US administration in 2006-07. Even then with too few troops and fewer civilian implementing partners who are prepared to get out from behind their fortresses in Kabul. What this illustrates is the folly of attempting to implement a doctrine based on what was perceived to have occurred in previous revolutionary wars and believing the implementation would be the same in practice in Afghanistan. This is not about arguing if only we had more money, or we will do it better next time. That is the strong lure of cognitive dissonance at work. What made the dissonance deeper was that Western leaders found a politically correct frame of reference to justify to their electorates the poor strategic approach to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If only we could win the hearts and minds of the population.
Control of the Population
COIN is built around clichés such as “winning hearts and minds.” As with modern day political campaigns, slogans and carefully crafted presentations become powerful reinforcing agents and divert our attention from the cold hard and dirty reality of implementation. In reality, “winning hearts and minds” is nothing more than pork-barrel politics. As long as our aid money flows into local pockets we will retain their “hearts and minds”. Even then as we experienced in places like Korengal Valley, the hearts and minds simply cannot be won regardless of the money. We refuse to accept that regardless of how hard we try in Afghanistan we will never mould the people to our way of thinking. Like water being poured onto sand, the effect may only last as long as we are prepared to keep pouring and may even be damaging by artificially distorting the local environment.. Interestingly, at the ’62 Rand Symposium Galula said “…they [counterinsurgent] should be aware, too, that aid programs and various other attempts to raise the people’s standard of living have never yet yielded the desired results.” Surely, a focus on the enemy and all who support the enemy is what matters, as with the approach taken by the GOSL.
Not all COIN proponents agree with the modern day politically correct interpretation that controlling the population means showering them with money and post-modern social changes. At the ’62 Rand Symposium, in the opinion of Australian Lt. Col. Bohannan the ultimate objective is the elimination of the enemy (by liquidation, neutralisation, or conversion,) but the path to that end runs largely through the civilian population. For instance, the Sri Lankan Government was focused on killing the enemy and removing LTTE leaders far more than winning hearts and minds. In Col. Bohannan’s view, people will revert to their indifference once the leaders of the guerrillas have been eliminated. Col. Fertig agreed and argued that nowhere is leadership more important than in guerrilla warfare where there is often strong attachment to the individual who symbolizes the cause; by eliminating him you have accomplished much of your task. This is one of the reasons night raids should continue despite the call at the November 2011 Loya Jirga in Kabul. Even in loosely controlled insurgent or guerrilla movements leadership is symbolises the raison d’être of the cause.
In Afghanistan we primarily saw the population as a homogenous group with generalised problems, when this is clearly not even the case in our own backyards of modern day marginal-seat based political campaigns. The dominant ideology in the West is multicultural pluralism, which is not about celebrating diversity but “sameness”. As Paul Collier explains, evidence from recent surveys found that with modernisation proceeding in places like Africa, identification with ethnicity increases. Winning the population in a diverse tribal and ethnic religious based land such as Afghanistan would require a plethora of mini-COIN campaigns, each one requiring a generation of boots on the ground and foreign money. Then it would be a complicated task to determine whether these mini-COIN campaigns needed to respond to the diversity or because of the many insurgencies and competing local interests.
In Afghanistan we further enflamed the diverse social and population bases (most of which are geographically isolated) through a series of manufactured, inorganic blunt, one size-fits-all instruments that continue to be an anathema to the local cultural and social architecture, particularly outside Kabul. Most local Taliban could easily be picking up an AK-47 to shoot Coalition forces one day and a shovel to clean a karez the next. Yet neither action is intended to be part of a global jihad or to overthrow the government in Kabul and they certainly cannot be easily acquiesced by the promise of democracy, building a new road or painting a school, when the basis for life in Afghanistan is a rigid belief in Islam and where all politics is local.
The population is also host to a network of criminal elements and warlords who benefit from a potent mix of instability and development funds. Many will recall claims by locals of violence and intimidation that was blamed on the Taliban but was actually the result of disgruntled criminals and warlords who were targeting a project for the very fact that their quasi-construction company had not received a slice of the action. Because they cannot afford to alienate a large segment of the population, counterinsurgents are very hesitant to target criminal organizations that are supported by a significant segment of the indigenous society, even if the criminal enterprise causes substantial harm.
The point is that “winning the hearts and minds” of the population is one of the worst populist planks of the COIN doctrine that limits, rather than opens, the strategic and tactical options available, especially in a place like Afghanistan. The final argument in this paper contends that romancing the COIN also reflected a deep psychological driver that many intellectuals have to prove how good they are at the blindingly complex. The modern day COIN warriors chose to be a fox rather than a hedgehog.
Failing the Hedgehog Concept in Afghanistan
Isaiah Berlin’s essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” is based on a Greek parable: the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Berlin explains that the fox is cunning and can devise and pursue many complex ideas and strategies. The hedgehog is not pretty or sleek like the fox, yet it doesn’t matter how complex the world becomes, he reduces all challenges into a basic principle that unifies everything. Perhaps the Taliban is the hedgehog and we are the fox. But we have chosen to be the fox because COIN doctrine is a powerful conceptual framework for intellectual elites to demonstrate they know many things, can pursue a myriad of complex strategies at the same time.
In Afghanistan a hedgehog would determine the end state he wants and be unrelenting in the pursuit of that strategic objective, employing only the most efficient and effective means to get there. A hedgehog in Afghanistan would not confuse the amount of activity, or the quantity of donor money spent as successful strategy. As stated in the beginning of this paper, my hedgehog in Afghanistan would have determined that as long as the Taliban do not let al Qaeda or a new form or non-state actor use Afghanistan as a base to train and launch terrorist attacks on our national interests then we will leave them alone. If the development and humanitarian community want to continue to implement social programs and rebuild the nation, then that is up to them and those who continue to fund international development initiatives.
In becoming the fox, we turned fighting the Taliban into a multilayered offensive that attempted to attain the maintenance of security, the restoration of law and order, community and tribal mapping, rebuilding social, health and educational facilities, women’s rights and gender alignment programs, and establishing systems of governance, all while setting up a fully functioning federal government. This is not even COIN anymore as argued at the 1962 Rand Symposium; it is nation-building by a fox on crack. Maybe it is driven by one of the final scenes of Charlie Wilson’s War, where he was turned down by Appropriations Committee seeking funds for schools, after the Soviets had withdrawn from Afghanistan.
It is difficult for a COIN campaign, let alone a conventional military campaign to succeed, without a clear, consistent and unambiguous strategy underpinning measurable objectives. In relation to Afghanistan since 2001 there have been two U.S. Presidents, at least one change in the head of state of all ISAF contributing nations and ten Commanding Generals. Galula argued that, more than any other kind of warfare, counterinsurgency must respect the principle of a single direction and, if at all possible, a single boss must direct the operations from beginning until the end.
Not only have we been a fox in the field, foxes have been in charge of the overall Afghanistan strategy. Like a fox, the Obama Administration has announced a number of confusing strategic objectives. When he announced his escalation of the war, Obama described his troop increase as a temporary surge and pledged to begin a withdrawal next July. The administration insisted that this is official policy -- but warned us not to expect, you know, an actual withdrawal. On August 01 Defence Secretary Robert Gates said, "My personal opinion is that draw-downs early on will be of fairly limited numbers...I think we need to re-emphasize the message that we are not leaving Afghanistan in July of 2011. We are beginning a transition process and a thinning of our ranks, and the pace will depend on the conditions on the ground."
Eugene Robinson, from the Washington Post further highlighted the perverse logic at work when quoting Gates, who claimed that the administration's policy in Afghanistan is "really quite clear." But this is how he described it: "We are in Afghanistan because we were attacked from Afghanistan, not because we want to try and build a better society in Afghanistan. But doing things to improve governance, to improve development in Afghanistan, to the degree it contributes to our security mission and to the effectiveness of the Afghan government in the security area, that's what we're going to do." Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave a similar description of the U.S. mission: "Afghanistan has to be stable enough, has to have enough governance, has to create enough jobs, have an economy that's good enough so that the Taliban cannot return" to establish a brutal, terrorist-friendly regime. Not only have we chosen to be the fox in Afghanistan, there are too many foxes in charge.
In November 2011 the Obama Administration set out a new strategy that will increase the military pressure (this is at the same time as the draw-down of troops) on the Haqqani network and other Taliban elements while opening opportunities for a negotiated settlement. This does not require either COIN or nation-building and while this is a simplified approach, it does not translate into a simple crystalline concept, or what Jim Collins called in Good to Great, the Hedgehog Concept.
When a doctrine has been resurrected by some of the most eminent military and civilian foxes in the world, based on the romance of legends, then it takes a great deal of courage to challenge that establishment. Just ask Col. Gian Gentile. Sure, there are plenty of anecdotes where a road here and a sewing project there, restored stability in a key district. For example, the ability of Generals and visiting Congress members to walk freely around the bazaar in Marja, Helmand, is often used to highlight COIN success. However, the decision makers who so strongly advocated rebuilding a nation should be made accountable for one of the most costly military and civilian projects since the Second World War. It is not good enough to escape by claiming if only we had more money or we will do it better next time. Those with the influence over the war in Afghanistan are at the Everest of their time in being able to look back down on history to see and who came before us and the consequences they faced.
As a construct modern day COIN is immediately and sensibly obvious and winning “hearts and minds” is a commendable populist ambition. As discussed, in many theatres of conflict and politics the basic tenets work at some levels. Irrespective of the environment, we are dealing with one of the most complex beasts on the planet - humans. Hobbes based his theory of human nature upon the assumption that we are naturally competitive and violent. We also forget that Galula, like many of us here, operated in an arena, fraught with layers of complexity, emotions, physical exertion and clouded post event recall. No wonder there are discrepancies between the romantic constructs of COIN in theory versus practice as proscribed by the Lawrences, Galulas, Kitsons and other timelessly influential military heroes. Throw in a bunch of foxes and we have a recipe for confusion. This romance should have ended a long time ago.