Small Wars Journal

COIN’s Funeral

COIN’s Funeral by Whitney Kassel, Foreign Policy

If Iraq was, very arguably, counterinsurgency's success story, Afghanistan looks increasingly like the place COIN went to die. Half of the soldiers NATO tried to train can't read. They spent billions on roads leading nowhere, schools with no teachers, and efforts to halt a heroin trade that has hit all-time highs. And in exchange for these labors and over 3,400 fatalities, we've seen President Karzai's February prisoner release and bilateral security agreement negotiations -- which look more like NATO is being shown the door than being asked to help stave off an all but inevitable civil war. Even leaders who implemented the strategy, most notably former U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, have been singing COIN's funeral dirge.

This all begs the question of how the United States and NATO came to pursue a COIN strategy in Afghanistan. If eliminating al Qaeda was the top objective, why didn't they stick with counterterrorism, namely, targeted strikes against members of the Taliban deemed to be "irreconcilable," or U.S. Vice President Biden's infamous "CT-plus," a slightly beefed-up version that still fell short of the robust assistance to the Afghan government that characterized COIN? Why did they pursue a strategy that many believed was deeply flawed, or at least very risky? Looking at how the strategy evolved, particularly after 2008, the answer that emerges is that COIN looked like the least bad option and the best chance to create some semblance of stability under which to defeat the Taliban and, in turn, al Qaeda…

Read on.


To understand where American foreign policy -- and therefore COIN -- is going today one must understand the emphasis that is now being placed on the term and condition of "stability."

Consider this from the second paragraph of Ms Kassel's paper:

"Looking at how the strategy evolved, particularly after 2008, the answer that emerges is that COIN looked like the least bad option and the best chance to create some semblance of stability under which to defeat the Taliban and, in turn, al Qaeda…"

So, for example, if we had a "do over" re: Afghanistan -- before 9/11 but also after it -- what is it that we would not have done and why?

What we would not have done, I suggest, is (1) invade Afghanistan and/or (2) overthrow the Taliban regime.

Why is this? Because such actions would (and did) destroy the thing that was/is of great important to us, to wit: the "degree of stability" that existed under the Taliban; this "degree of stability," in hindsight, being something that we could, and should, have used more to our advantage.

So what does this renewed understanding of the importance of "stability" (however achieved, however maintained and by whatever odious/oppressive ruler/regime) portend for American foreign policy and, therefore, for COIN?

That we will be much less likely to seek our political objective via invasion, occupation, regime change, etc. These such options now being "off the table." (Our opponents -- and our partners -- understanding this.)

Why is this? Because these such actions destroy the all-important condition ("stability") upon which political action (the destruction of al Qaeda; the transformation of outlying states and societies more along modern western lines) depend. Herein, "stability," once it is lost, being a condition which (as we have painfully learned) often cannot be replaced at any -- or at any acceptable -- cost.

Therefore, and because of the overriding importance of the condition of "some semblance of stability," expect to see the United States -- as it did during the Cold War (when "the end of history" and "universal values" did not lead us down the primrose path) -- work more "by, with and through" regimes (rather than populations) to achieve its (the United States') desired ends.

Ms. Kassel's article is a drop in what I see as a developing torrent of articles by the foreign policy cognescenti absolving themselves of blame for anything and everything that has gone wrong in Afghanistan. Her particular approach is to acknowledge finally seeing the light that "COIN" could not have possibly worked and if only we had followed a counter terrorism approach. The beauty of her approach is she gets to look wise and forthright by admitting we didn't do so good and to look even more wise and forthright by blaming it what she says we did, "COIN", and proclaiming if only we had done what we didn't do, it would have worked. Of course it can never be disproved that what we didn't do would not have worked but that is why she is inside the beltway and we aren't. It takes talent to put yourself in a position like that.

Well, I don't know if "COIN" works or not. I do know that small war when prosecuted well by good troops and leaders works pretty good. It did in Bihn Nghia as recounted by one West. It worked in an account of happenings in a town in Iraq by another West. It worked in Ramadi with McFarland and in Tal Afar with McMaster and in Garmser as recounted by Malkasian. It has worked in a lot of places where troops and leaders do things like stay in the area, foot patrol a lot, get close to and learn to know the people. Things like that. The insurgents are beaten.

But though small war well fought can beat the insurgent in the valley, the village or the province, there is one thing it can't do. It can't deal with inviolable sanctuary provided by another country and it can't deal with Unconventional Warfare prosecuted against us by the army and intel service of that country, like the Pak Army/ISI for example. That is a job for people high up both civilian and military, GS three digits and the multi-stars. People like Ms. Kassel. If they can't handle things like that there is nothing for even the best small war fighter ever, and we have some of those right now, a lot of those; there is nothing those guys can do to save the situation. But people like Ms. Kassel will find a way to shift blame for their failure.

Imagine if she had been commander of Western Approaches Command in WWII and the U-boats had won. It is almost as if she was saying if we only had had ships sail individually instead of in convoy we would have won, while ignoring that she never really recognized the Kriegsmarine as the enemy, never did anything much about them and in fact had Kriegsmarine liaison officers in Derby House the whole time. That is the argument being made. But you do what you gotta do to stay inside the beltway I guess. I expect to see a lot more of this kind of self conferred absolution in the future.

She mentioned that (stage direction: the following to be said in breathless disbelief) half the Afghan soldiers couldn't read. Well so what? Half of them could. Deal with it. Anything else is an excuse. The Red Chinese Army that kicked us out of North Korea dealt with it. The British Redcoats in the French and Indian War dealt with it. The Union Army dealt with it when they incorporated over 160,000 black troops into its ranks very few of whom could read. I don't believe any of the Apache Scouts in Arizona and New Mexico could read in the 1870s. So it isn't impossible at all. But I guess it is possible to use it as one more excuse for the failures of the high ups to see and do.