Small Wars Journal

Seeing the Other Side of the COIN: A Critique of the Current Counterinsurgency (COIN) Strategies in Afghanistan

Fri, 03/11/2011 - 11:23am
Seeing the Other Side of the COIN:

A Critique of the Current Counterinsurgency (COIN) Strategies in Afghanistan

by Metin Turcan

Download the Full Article: Seeing the Other Side of the COIN

Though the international visibility of Tribalized Rural and Muslim Environments (TRMEs) such as rural Afghanistan has dramatically increased for almost nine years with the efforts of Coalition Forces (CF) in Afghanistan, TRMEs have rarely been studied from Counterinsurgency (COIN) perspective. Although there has emerged a vast literature at the strategic level on the COIN efforts of the CF in Afghanistan and the prospective policies of the international community to resolve the current insurgency, unfortunately, we are still unable to see the other side of the COIN at the tactical level, or view on the ground.

The utmost aim of this article is to attack many "dogmas" currently exist in the COIN literature, and challenges traditional COIN wisdom available in the literature. It also aims to lay out a different perspective regarding the COIN efforts in rural areas at the tactical level, a rarely studied level from COIN perspective. This is, therefore, not an article of problem solver. It may be regarded, instead, as an article of problem setting at the tactical level and concerning Afghanistan in general. It claims that the current situation in rural Afghanistan do not conform to established frames or assumptions in the literature, and the current literature is, thus, far behind from figuring out what the real problem is.

Human beings are members of a whole, in creation of one essence and soul.

If one member is afflicted with pain, other members uneasy will remain.

If you have no sympathy for human pain, the name of human you cannot retain.

-Sa'adi Shirazi (13th century Islamic poet)

Download the Full Article: Seeing the Other Side of the COIN

Metin Turcan, who holds a MA Degree on Security Studies from Naval Postgraduate School, is currently working as a security advisor in the Interior Ministry of Turkey. He served in southeastern Turkey (1999,2004,2006,2008), Iraq (1999,2003,2005) and fulfilled liaison and training missions in Kazakhstan(2004), Kyrgyzstan(2004), and Afghanistan(2005).

About the Author(s)


Bob's World

Tue, 03/15/2011 - 10:33am

There is a lot of goodness in this article, and I have added it to my stockpile of products that contain important insights. I would like to highlight and comment on a few positions that stood out to me:

1. "Draining the Swamp." We hear this and say this all the time, but how often do we pause and ask "Drain it of what?" or ask "Is this actually a wetland that is essential to the overall health of this particular ecosystem? Americans love to convert wilderness into productive farmland, be that literally as we tamed a wide swath of North America, or figuratively as we go out to implement foreign policy.

But as to what "fills" the swamp, I argue that it is government domestic policy, lack of perceived legitimacy of that same government, and unwanted foreign presence that is the greatest source of converting a fertile populace into a dismal swamp of insurgency. Any COIN efforts that decrease perceptions of governmental legitimacy, that leave unchecked negative governmental policies, or that increase unwanted foreign presence are each an open floodgate filling the swamp far faster than development or small job programs can bail.

2. The importance of Justice: YES! Not rule of law, but how the populace feels about the law. Focus on creating a secure network of justice in places like Kandahar province would be huge. This would mean trained, well paid and monitored staff, from judges, attorneys, clerks, provincial police and corrections. This would mean focusing development on secure housing and facilities to protect this high-value target from insurgent attack. It would mean convoys that deliver circuit rider (dare we call it "justice in a box"?) to remote communities on a known and regular schedule empowered to resolve local issues that currently are taken to the Taliban. This is one of three critical perspectives in my insurgency model.

3. "Top Down" vs. "Bottom up": This is the wrong question IMO. Yes, the COG in insurgency is the support of the populace, but one does not engage a COG directly, rather one identifies the critical vulnerabilities of why one does not have the support of the COG and engage them to bring the COG over. So one does not engage the top to get to the bottom, one engages the top to release the bottom and allow it to rise. One must understand the bottom, but one must engage the top IAW that understanding of what elements of the top must change. To engage the bottom while the top is pressed down hard upon it can do little more than create bubbles of goodness that quickly pop once the engagement stops.

4. "Islands of Peace": Or the Ink blot method. This can indeed work if done in conjunction with true governmental reform, but where to start? What 5,000 pop town in Kandahar province should sponsor this showcase of goodness? AWK or General Shirzai would be quick to lead coalition officials to an appropriate town for this test. One not too dangerous. Also one that is within their existing network of friends, tribes and family and already generally (for those same reasons) loyal to GIRoA. The town that needs this most is too dangerous to go to. Too dangerous because it is of a tribe, it is of families that are outside the current circle of trust. Denied economic and governmental opportunity by GIRoA and those connected to GIRoA, these are the towns that naturally become bases of support to the Taliban (or anyone else that might come along and offer them some glimmer of hope to break out of the patron-less oppression they find themselves in. This is the problem. The places we need to go to the most are too dangerous to go to (other than by infantry assault); and the places we are steered to by GIRoA as safe are where such engagement is not only not necessary, but where the very application of such engagement increases the disparity between haves and haves not, and pours floodwaters of discontent into the proverbial swamp.

We do not understand enough about the bottom to engage the bottom. But we do understand enough about the bottom to engage the top. Reduce our presence, reduce our actions that degrade the perceived legitimacy of GIRoA, and hammer at the aspects of GIRoA that most contribute to this insurgency. That is how we close the floodgates and bring this entire populace into fertile production.

As I said, this is a good paper with valuable insights.


Lurker (not verified)

Mon, 03/14/2011 - 9:09pm

THIS is an example of why I have Small Wars Journal bookmarked for daily reading. I agree with Carl, what more can one sentence say? Not much.

An Outsider

Mon, 03/14/2011 - 7:57pm

Loved this piece. Great honest insight on a very misunderstood region on which hinges so much. It should be read pre-deployment alongside Galula, Kilcullen, and other population-centric approach advocates.


Sat, 03/12/2011 - 6:51am

Excellent article. I wonder how widely it will be read by COIN practitioners, e.g. brigade commanders pre-deployment?

carl (not verified)

Fri, 03/11/2011 - 11:45pm

This is a very good piece. I especially like his idea about how justice trumps security.

It also has this sentence in it.

"If the numbers of the COIN soldiers who are watching the war from their screens are more than the numbers of soldiers who see the pupils of the insurgents with their own eyes, COIN cannot disrupt this insurgency."

That is a great sentence.