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Sunday 20 Aug 2017 | 14:21 | SYDNEY
Sunday 20 Aug 2017 | 14:21 | SYDNEY

All COIN and no sense?

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This post is part of the Counterinsurgency debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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27 October 2009 15:14


This post is part of the Counterinsurgency debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Military strategy, like most human enterprises, has fashions that come and go with changing political and technological circumstances. These tend to originate as innovative responses to thorny strategic problems that have defied resolution by more established means.

Having produced a successful outcome in one instance, these newly proven ideas then become entrenched in the habits or preferences of military organisations — often as a result of their leading exponents being promoted to senior positions – usually until they prove unsuited to the changed circumstances in which they're next employed.

In recent years, the strategy of the moment has been counterinsurgency (COIN), an approach that emphasises protecting local populations, respecting their institutions, listening to their concerns, and providing for their basic needs. The ultimate aim is to alienate the insurgency from local people, who can then either resist the insurgency themselves or at least throw their support behind nascent central institutions, such as the military or police forces, to fight the insurgency on their behalf.

Whatever one thinks of COIN, it has resonated deeply throughout western defence establishments. As President Obama weighs his options in Afghanistan, the default strategic preference of the US military – reflected most vividly in the McChrystal Report, which in my view lacks the exhaustive strategic reasoning that one might expect of such an important document – is for a full-fledged counterinsurgency.

What underpins this preference for COIN?

I think there are two factors. First, the principles and assumptions of COIN seem to coincide well with soldiers' sense of themselves as playing a constructive and beneficial role in the world. People who choose a career in the military often do so out of a genuine desire to help people and make a difference, and COIN, with its focus on nation building and protecting innocent populations, goes a long way toward satisfying that desire. This is all well and good, but it says nothing about the value of COIN as a set of strategic concepts.

Second, and far more importantly, there is a strong sense that COIN was shown to work in Iraq, where it was a prominent strategic feature of the 2007 surge. To me, this is a problematic assumption. While tens of thousands of extra troops on the ground – in neighbourhoods rather than bases — undoubtedly helped to suppress al Qaeda's movements, the strategic reorientation towards COIN nevertheless seems to have been at best a secondary factor in the improvements in security that occurred around that time.

Far more critical, it appears, was a calculation on the part of the major Sunni elements that their alliance with al Qaeda had become more a liability than an asset, and that if they were to enjoy any sort of future in Iraq they were best served by accommodating themselves to the reality of a politically subordinate position and cooperating with the US to defeat al Qaeda – a task for which they were also handsomely paid.

All of this leads me to wonder whether the people calling for COIN in Afghanistan might be making an age-old mistake: drawing the wrong lessons from the last war.

Photo by Flickr user lafrancevi, used under a Creative Commons license.

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