Small Wars Journal

Population-Centric COIN in Afghanistan

Many Paths up the Mountain:

Population-Centric COIN in Afghanistan

by Major Nathan Springer

Download the full article: Population-Centric COIN in Afghanistan

The reality of how Troops implement and execute Population-Centric Counterinsurgency (COIN) in Afghanistan and the associated narrative spin in the Western COIN community of interest are at odds. A misguided and mistaken narrative surrounds ISAF's Population-Centric strategy in Afghanistan. I have listened to countless experts describe Population-Centric COIN as soft, focused on anything but the enemy, and extremely left leaning while Enemy-Centric COIN gets pegged the right-wing counter-terrorism approach, wholly focused on the enemy. This over-simplifies both schools of thought and fails to accurately describe either of them.

I have heard leaders voice strong concerns that the Population-Centric strategy will constrain them in Afghanistan while some contend Population--Centric COIN is glorified nation building. Others have adopted Population-Centric COIN whole-heartedly and without much question, as if it is the ultimate cure-all for any Area of Operation.

COIN experts have seemingly come out of the woodwork, each articulating their own COIN theory on Afghanistan. Population-Centric, Leader-Centric, Enemy- Centric, tribally motivated, religiously motivated, externally organized, internally organized, you name it. I have experienced a recurrent thought as I have traveled to various COIN venues over the past few months, scrutinizing the dialogues about these theories. A few days ago, at the COIN symposium, I decided to just get it out there.

Download the full article: Population-Centric COIN in Afghanistan

Major Nathan Springer is the Chief of Operations at the U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Center. The thoughts and opinions in this article are entirely his own and do not represent the position of the United States Army.

About the Author(s)

Comments

soldiernolonge…

Wed, 05/26/2010 - 10:09am

I agree with that, too, MikeF, and his take on the pundit-press coverage and reality on the ground.

But I can't get beyond that Marjah paragraph.

It just hangs there.

spartan16

Wed, 05/26/2010 - 7:03am

Nate,

You are right. Every situation, in every place in Afghanistan will be slighty different in some cases, and very different in others.

It is the ability to understand the environment in your AO and then being able to pick the appropriate way to meet the mission that is key...and even that could change - daily.

What worked today might not work tomorrow, etc...

I'll still work for you brother. Keep up the good work.

STRENGTH AND HONOR

Jim

Mike Few (not verified)

Wed, 05/26/2010 - 9:38am

Carl,

I took this essay as stream of consciousness writing, and I tried to place it in context with Nate's other esssays and our discussions.

To whit, I thought that your counter-point Porch quote was appropriate.

Nate can answer your questions on his own. I can't read his mind, but I think that the tone of his essay about the endless bickering of what label to place in front of counter-insurgency is valid. It is uneccesary, confusing, and detracts from the real problems practisioners face in the field.

Mike

Gulliver

Wed, 05/26/2010 - 12:21pm

<em>there is an article stating that Secretary of Defense Gates is directing that the US Military

"adopt a set of counterinsurgency tools modeled after ones instituted in Afghanistan by Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, said a senior Pentagon official."

If we dont refer to the principles, precepts, and rules outlined in General McChrystal's approach in Afghanistan as "population centric Coin" then how should we refer to it?

And further, how else should one read this purported directive from the article as anything but senior officers and leaders in the Department of Defense dictating the tactics of units on the ground in Afghanistan? Combat commanders now only at their peril will do something different than population centric counterinsurgency.</em>

If you actually read the article, you'll find that this isn't actually what the directive is about. <a href="http://tachesdhuile.blogspot.com/2010/05/from-department-of-incredibly… here.</a>

gian p gentile (not verified)

Wed, 05/26/2010 - 11:55am

But it is population centric Coin, so why the angst in calling it as such?

Nate's essay, for better or for worse, conformed to all of its tenets, principles, and rules.

And there is more, today in DefenseNews
(http://www.defensenews.com/story.php?i=4641485&c=ASI&s=TOP)

there is an article stating that Secretary of Defense Gates is directing that the US Military

"adopt a set of counterinsurgency tools modeled after ones instituted in Afghanistan by Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, said a senior Pentagon official."

If we dont refer to the principles, precepts, and rules outlined in General McChrystal's approach in Afghanistan as "population centric Coin" then how should we refer to it?

And further, how else should one read this purported directive from the article as anything but senior officers and leaders in the Department of Defense dictating the tactics of units on the ground in Afghanistan? Combat commanders now only at their peril will do something different than population centric counterinsurgency.

I find all of this to be deeply chilling in its effects on creativity at all levels of war.

Moreover, how well will this institutionalized coin within the military services play out in the Chorwon Valley? Maybe it is time to start thinking outside of the straightjacket Coin box.

gian

Goodall (not verified)

Wed, 05/26/2010 - 11:51am

The term "population centric COIN" seems to illustrate the problems we have in defining the situation in Afghanistan correctly. I think that Afghanistan calls for a more complex perspective than simply insurgency and counterinsurgency. "Population centric COIN" really indicates that we are deling with an area that has not been sufficiently governed for over 30 years.

I posit that in order for a conflict to be termed as an "insurgency," There must be a capable government for the insurgents to fight. In most regions of Afghanistan, I don't think that this condition is met.

What we are doing in Afghanistan has elements of COIN and of "nation-building." "Population-centric COIN" is, in my view, a term that presents the war in Afghanistan as a COIN fight in order to capitalize on our COIN successes in Iraq. These two conflicts are very different and require different perspectives and semantics in order for us to succeed.

soldiernolonge…

Wed, 05/26/2010 - 9:22am

Mike, I agree that the author makes some salient (albeit largely undeveloped) points elsewhere in his brief essay.

But doesn't that rosy description of the Marjah operation make you pause when you read the rest of his piece? If he can be so breathlessly posit a Panglossian understanding of how COIN has unfolded in Marjah, why should we buy into whatever else he's selling?

Ergo the reference to Porch's writing on a different era of pacifying recalcitrant peoples who didn't wish to be pacified.

No knock on him, but it's a very uneven essay. The Marjah statement just hangs there, and it's hard to get beyond it.

I'm not sure that we can.

Mike Few (not verified)

Wed, 05/26/2010 - 7:59am

Hi Nate.

I agree with the thrust of your essay. Maximiist statements such as always and never rarely prove true in any human endeavor. For instance, if a commander determines that he will always establish patrol bases, never kill civilians, or never engage certain tribal leaders, then he is only limiting his options without regard to METT-TC.

Personally, as I have stated in the past, I prefer the "old" terms of small wars, counter-insurgency, rebellion, resistance, and guerilla. IMO, the additional labels only muddy the waters.

My one critique would be to hold off on an assessment of Marjah as a success. While the Marines had a short-term victory, there was no follow-on gov't in a box. In the long term, Marjah is only a success if the A'stan govt is perceived by the populace as providing fair governance.

Keep writing.

Mike

Bob's World

Wed, 05/26/2010 - 12:28pm

"Population Centric Coin" is a TASK at the level discussed here; and I think we can all agree that "what" a subordinate commander is to do is the purview of his commander; but that "how" a commander executes it is up to him.

The challenge I see on the ground is not that higher is dictating "how", but rather that many are stuggling at all level just "how" to execute the "what" of Population Centric Coin.

In many ways its like asking a group that has been blind since birth to describe what "red" looks like. They're all coming up with someghing different, and there's no way to tell in the near term is they're getting it right or not.