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COIN and its critics

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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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28 October 2009 13:57


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

Stephan Fruehling is a lecturer in the Strategic and Defence Studies Program, ANU.

Raoul Heinrichs, for whom I have a great deal of personal respect, illustrates the misunderstandings and half-knowledge that pervade the Australian debate on counterinsurgency (COIN). His arguments are twofold: that COIN is a new 'strategy of the moment' being pushed by Western militaries, and that successes in Iraq were down more to Sunni political realignments than to COIN. On both accounts, he is simply wrong and misinformed – which makes his swipe at GEN McChrystal look all the weaker. 

First, Raoul seems to use the term 'strategy' in an artificially narrow manner limited to tactical and operational aspects of war. It is a very Australian mistake to confuse small-unit tactics or operations against irregular forces with COIN as a strategy. Tactics and operations are important levels of warfare, but strategy is the bridge between the military and political aspects of violence. 

To separate the political realignments that occurred before, during and after the 2007 surge in Iraq from the military operations that were designed to provide the context and incentives for such a development is hence to completely miss the central point of COIN as a strategy, and to do injustice to the sophistication and understanding of COIN that US generals and strategists acquired after several years of operations in Iraq. In the words of Frank Kitson:

The first thing that must be apparent when contemplating the sort of action which a government facing insurgency should take, is that there can be no such thing as purely military solution because insurgency is not primarily a military activity. At the same time there is no such thing as a wholly political solution either...the very fact that a state of insurgency exists implies that violence is involved which will have to be countered to some extent at least by the use of force.

Second, the recent renaissance of COIN study and doctrine in Western military forces should not be confused with earlier obsessions with 'effects-based operations', 'rapid decisive operations', the 'revolution in military affairs' or other historically ignorant fantasies. 

To begin with, it is not new. Many of the COIN classics that current doctrine draws on were written decades, sometimes centuries ago. And it is something that is unusual or 'new' only to those ignorant of the role of many, if not most, military organizations around the globe. While it is a mantra of post-modern political science to highlight the overwhelmingly intra-state nature of violence in today's conflicts, remarkably little notice is taken by Western academia and political pundits of the consequence: for military forces in countries as varied as Northern Ireland, India, Philippines or Columbia – to name but a few examples – COIN is the natural and everyday way of doing business.

More importantly, COIN is also much broader than the above mentioned fads – it is a paradigm for fighting insurgency that must be applied and adapted in line with the specific conditions and circumstances in each theatre, province, district or valley. Here, Raoul’s critique McChrystal’s report – which was only released in an abridged unclassified version, and whose purpose was not 'exhaustive strategic reasoning' but to help implement a given strategy – very much falls short. 

Reading McChrystal's report as demanding a 'full-fledged counterinsurgency' is correct at a very general level, but misses the central point of the argument: that NATO has not been paying sufficient attention to the consequences of its actions. This is not just to say that kinetic engagements have often created more enemies than they eliminated. It is about realising that NATO forces could best pacify some valleys by leaving them — the Korengal Valley and other places in Kunar and Nuristan provinces, for example. 

In contrast, Pashtun-dominated areas in Helmand or Kandahar would require more Western forces than deployed so far to roll back Taliban influence, and to extend and deepen the gains of recent months. 

The lack of understanding and detailed engagement in Australian public debate with what is going on in Afghanistan remains astonishing. No war was ever won by simply training four, or any number, of Kandaks (Afghan battalions). To conclude with some more of Kitson's writing: 

We have seen that it is only by a close combination of civil and military measures that insurgency can be fought, so it is logical to expect soldiers whose business it is to know how to fight, to know also how to use civil measures in this way. Not only should the army officers know about the subject, they must also be prepared to pass on their knowledge to politicians, civil servants, economists, members of the local government and policemen where necessary. The educational function of the army at these critical moments is most important. Amongst senior officers in particular, ignorance or excessive diffidence in passing along such knowledge on can be disastrous.

Australia's strategic community has some catching up to do.

Photo by Flickr user MATEUS 27:24&25, used under a Creative Commons license.

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