Small Wars Journal

The Other Side of the COIN

Mon, 08/26/2013 - 5:14am

The Other Side of the COIN: The Limits of Counterinsurgency Doctrine in Afghanistan by Karl W. Eikenberry, Foreign Affairs (Excerpt provided, full article requires paid subscription).

Since 9/11, two consecutive U.S. administrations have labored mightily to help Afghanistan create a state inhospitable to terrorist organizations with transnational aspirations and capabilities. The goal has been clear enough, but its attainment has proved vexing. Officials have struggled to define the necessary attributes of a stable post-Taliban Afghan state and to agree on the best means for achieving them. This is not surprising. The U.S. intervention required improvisation in a distant, mountainous land with de jure, but not de facto, sovereignty; a traumatized and divided population; and staggering political, economic, and social problems. Achieving even minimal strategic objectives in such a context was never going to be quick, easy, or cheap...

Read on.


Madhu (not verified)

Mon, 08/26/2013 - 1:01pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Is the Karzai government today the same as the Northern Alliance regime of the past? I agree with general formulation and you have proven correct on many things (and I've been wrong). It was bad idea of staying past the original toppling of the Taliban and allying with Karzai and placing him on a pedestal but isn't the collection of people around him somewhat shifted today?

And what is your rationale writing about existential clashes and nuclear threats? Is it real or something else, akin to bargaining?

<blockquote>Campbell writes: "At dinner I was between two five-star generals who spent most of the time listing atrocities for which they held the Indians responsible, killing their own people and trying to blame 'freedom fighters'. They were pretty convinced that one day there would be a nuclear war because India, despite its vast population and despite being seven times bigger, was unstable and determined to take them out.

"When the time came to leave, the livelier of the two generals asked me to remind the Indians: 'It takes us eight seconds to get the missiles over,' then flashed a huge toothy grin."</blockquote>…

PS: Since I'm on this kick lately, I wonder what the Saudis are up to in the region given their sensibilities regarding Iran? Do they prefer a weak Afghanistan or is their system similarly conflicted?

Robert C. Jones

Mon, 08/26/2013 - 12:32pm

Ambassador Eikenberry is spot on regarding military operations, but has a blind spot to the even more strategically significant issues of how policy and diplomatic leaders framed the problem in 2003/4. We created an impossible situation, and then imposed tremendous costs upon ourselves attempting to make it work. This is an AQ strategic victory designed and implemented by ourselves. I hope we learn that.

Ambassador Eikenberry's criticisms of the military are largely both fair and accurate. Where he fails, IMO, is to recognize equally the failures of our policy makers and diplomatic corps. Of course Pakistan has been conducting UW from the beginning, and reasonably sees maintaining influence into Afghanistan as critical to avoiding a potentially nuclear and existential clash with India. Don't hate the scorpion for being a scorpion.

But what the Ambassador misses is that in the name of "democracy" we helped enable the production of a Constitution designed to secure a Northern Alliance monopoly of governance, and to exclude fair participation indefinitely of those aligned with the former Taliban government and system of patronage. We created a system of tyranny, not democracy, and revolutionary insurgency from out of the sanctuaries of Pakistan naturally followed.

As we surged against this revolution, our very actions provoked and nurtured the growth of a much more domestic resistance insurgency among the Afghan people. The Ambassador's assessment of the military COIN/surge approach is spot on here.

But there are no clean hands. I worked in the US Embassy in Kabul during Ambassador Eikenberry's watch. I share his frustration with the military approach, but he does not, apparently, share my frustration with how our policy leaders and diplomatic corps framed (in good faith) an unwinnable situation from the very outset. Blaming the military and Karzai and the Pakistani's is easy sport. Recognizing our failures of policy and diplomacy, however, are the keys to avoiding similar disasters in the future.

Too bad he could not be as insightful on his perspective of our civil actions as he is of our military ones.