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Friday 18 Aug 2017 | 11:48 | SYDNEY
Friday 18 Aug 2017 | 11:48 | SYDNEY

The great COIN toss

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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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2 November 2009 12:42


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

I've learned a lot from Stephan Fruehling in recent years. He's a former teacher of mine at ANU and a shrewd analyst of international and strategic affairs. But his recent criticisms of my sceptical take on counterinsurgency (COIN), however forcefully delivered, hit pretty wide of the mark.

First, to distinguish between the various factors that resulted in a more benign environment in post-surge Iraq is not to miss the point of COIN as a strategy, as Stephan claims. The question of which factor was decisive in quelling violence in Iraq is today of real importance, since the confidence — almost zealousness — with which the US military has begun advocating population-centric COIN in Afghanistan appears to rest in large part on a sense of triumphalism over the perceived success of that approach in Iraq.

Would officers really be studying anthropology and linguistics and languages like Pashtu and Urdu — in anticipation of ingratiating themselves with populations — without these perceptions, simply on the basis of the rich tradition of COIN that Stephan alludes to, from the Philippines and Malaya to Vietnam and Northern Ireland? And would Generals Petraeus and McChrystal have been given responsibility for the next war, had they not been lauded for producing a successful outcome in the last one?

Nor is it as self-evident as Stephan presupposes that there is a causal relationship between the US military's tactical, operational or strategic reorientation to COIN in Iraq and the political realignment of Sunni tribes and militias.

Indeed, there is considerable evidence that Sunni tribes presented the US with an offer to help fight al Qaeda in 2004, long before 'protecting the population' had become the operating mantra of US forces. At the very least, the 'Awakening' process appears to have been underway by the time US troops entered neighbourhoods to clear, hold and build. As Thomas Friedman points out in last week's NY Times:

The U.S. surge in Iraq was militarily successful because it was preceded by an Iraqi uprising sparked by a Sunni tribal leader, Sheik Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, who, using his own forces, set out to evict the pro-Al Qaeda thugs who had taken over Sunni towns and were imposing a fundamentalist lifestyle. The U.S. surge gave that movement vital assistance to grow. But the spark was lit by the Iraqis.

This raises the question: if the improvements in Iraq's security are attributable to the Sunni Awakening, and if the political decision that led to the Awakening was made by Sunni leaders largely independently – that is to say, if the COIN was not a decisive factor – on what basis should we think that translating the same COIN principles to Afghanistan offers the best chance for most cost-effectively defeating the insurgency and preventing al Qaeda from re-establishing its foothold?

Of course, General McChrystal could have spelled this out in detail in his 66-page report, and he really should have. But, as Stephan himself acknowledges, the McChrystal Report, though unequivocal in its assertion that a population-centric approach is the right one, concerns itself primarily with how COIN should be implemented, and says very little about the more salient question of why.

Finally, I think Stephan is right to caution against getting hung up on tactical and operational considerations, because it is at the strategic level of analysis in particular that a long and expensive COIN campaign in Afghanistan makes the least sense.

For one thing, even if it is successful, the costs of COIN promise to be extraordinarily high, both in absolute terms and relative to the benefits it could ideally produce. Even its most devoted supporters acknowledge that a major COIN campaign, with its emphasis on simultaneous top-down and bottom-up nation building, will take many years, cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and will inevitably entail the loss of many more lives.

And the benefits? Well, assuming success, al Qaeda would be prevented from re-establishing its presence in Afghanistan. However, while that has been the objective from the outset, strategically, it may be far less beneficial than it seems. After all, al Qaeda is already entrenched in Pakistan, a few hundred kilometres away, where it would presumably remain, and from where it could continue to raise and train forces and plan attacks against various targets.

Not should we assume success. As Harvard's Stephen Walt notes:

The Karzai government is corrupt, incompetent and resistant to reform. The Taliban have sanctuaries in Pakistan and can hide among the local populace... Our European allies are war-weary and looking for the exits. The more troops we send and the more we interfere in Afghan affairs, the more we look like foreign occupiers and the more resistance we will face. There is therefore little reason to expect a US victory.

As President Obama weighs his next move in Afghanistan, he'll do well to ignore the option that McChrystal served up to him. With massive costs, few benefits, and little chance of success, a major COIN effort, I fear, is a recipe for disaster.

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

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