Both Sides of the COIN: Defining War After Afghanistan
Bing West and his critics:
I. THEORY VERSUS PRACTICE - Christopher Sims, Department of War Studies at King's College London.
In his analysis of the shortcomings of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, Bing West offers a compelling assessment that, as he writes, "counterinsurgency as nation building became a Sisyphean mission" ("Groundhog War," Foreign Affairs, October 2011). But the real problem is not with counterinsurgency doctrine itself but rather with how it is being applied. U.S. military planners and officers should not entirely abandon counterinsurgency, as West predicts they will; instead, they should return to counterinsurgency's guiding principles and make sure they are properly implemented on the ground.
For starters, West argues that Western handouts have led to a culture of entitlement in Afghanistan, which, in turn, has bred opportunism rather than patriotism or a desire for self-improvement. This is a real concern: in 2010, foreign aid was equivalent to approximately 90 percent of Afghanistan's total GDP.
The schizophrenia often found in counterinsurgency tactics is especially apparent in the distribution of money. Some analysts believe money to be an important part of counterinsurgency: in 2004, for example, the U.S. Marine Corps' first Regimental Combat Team handed out cash payments as compensation for property damage inflicted during their operation to secure Fallujah. Yet in the documentaries West reviews, Restrepo and Armadillo, there is no clear logic to such payments; money is withheld in one case and given in another…
Counterinsurgency doctrine also calls for limiting collateral damage as a central element of winning the support of the population. This led, for example, to the controversial 2009 decision of General Stanley McChrystal, then the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, to focus on protecting Afghans during military operations above all other objectives. But what officers call "courageous restraint" is not always so easy to implement during the adrenalin-fueled confusion of a firefight. As the Danish platoon commander in Armadillo tells his troops, if you cannot distinguish between an insurgent reaching for a weapon and one reaching his hands out to surrender, then shoot. Nation building is not what most infantry soldiers sign up for.
Counterinsurgency doctrine has evolved, but most soldiers do not keep up, meaning that innovations in strategy often do not work their way down to the tactical level. … Too few soldiers are familiar with the changing theories and guidelines of counterinsurgency.
A project of nation building in which the central government is neither reflective of nor responsive to the needs of the people is not the desired terrain; Kilcullen, for example, has criticized the decision to invade Iraq. Yet the anthropological potion that he and others created -- modern counterinsurgency doctrine -- turned out to be a remedy for a seemingly incurable malady. It should not be abandoned because it has not been implemented effectively or homogeneously; it is an invaluable intellectual reservoir that the U.S. military should draw on, adapt, and modify for the future.
II. BEYOND GROUNDHOG DAY – Major Fernando Luján is an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations based at the Center for a New American Security.
Bing West uses a pair of documentary films, Restrepo and Armadillo, to illustrate grim realities in Afghanistan and to argue that the principles of counterinsurgency will soon "be rejected by the younger generation of company-grade officers who had to execute a flawed doctrine." But as a member of this younger generation of U.S. military officers, I disagree; in fact, I can speak for many of my peers in arguing that a wholesale rejection of counterinsurgency after Afghanistan and Iraq would be a grave error that would put the U.S. military on the path to irrelevance.
Whereas West has certainly served his time on the ground, the reader has probably not, and so should be cautioned that the experience of the soldiers in Restrepo is far from universal.
Restrepo's Korengal Valley is an example of one place where a perfect storm of unforgiving terrain and hostile tribes has made counterinsurgency virtually impossible. But just as important was the initiative, cultural savvy, and experience of the soldiers on the ground. When those dynamics come together, West's claim that "no matter their skills and good intentions, foreign troops cannot persuade the people of another nation to reject insurgents in their midst" does not hold up. Even in some of the most tightly controlled, longest-standing Taliban strongholds, U.S. and Afghan units working closely together have been able to draw the local populations to their side.
The most successful military units have been those that learned the secret to overcoming the "Groundhog Day" phenomenon: stop trying to do it all yourself. Instead, reduce the footprint of foreign soldiers on patrols and coach Afghan soldiers and police on taking the lead. Ten Afghans and six U.S. soldiers can be infinitely more effective at approaching locals than the same ten Afghans with 100 U.S. soldiers in support.
At the same time, the most adept U.S. units have learned to stop playing Santa Claus with projects and aid money -- every dollar spent, every well dug or school built, is predicated on getting local leaders to step forward to make decisions as a community and then on connecting them to the Afghans working at the district center a few miles away.
Yet this very abundance of resources can also inhibit the long-term viability of these achievements. More U.S. troops, for example, can mean less incentive to train Afghan counterparts; after all, why work through Afghans if you can do it yourself and do it better?
The rush to condemn counterinsurgency doctrine as a failed experiment is based on two myths. The first is that counterinsurgency is nothing more than a contest for hearts and minds, a squishy theory that looks to turn the army into the Peace Corps or buy popularity in conflict zones with lollipops and Band-Aids. The second is that counterinsurgency is nation building on a massive scale, reliant on tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers to succeed.
No matter how much the various institutions of the U.S. military may prefer wars in which the enemy wears uniforms and fights in large formations, the United States is certain to face insurgencies again. The U.S. defense establishment must be prepared to deal with them effectively, with very limited resources, or face irrelevance.
Rather than demonizing a false, straw-man version of counterinsurgency that calls for tens of thousands of troops and a commitment to nation building, West and other defense leaders and theorists should focus on how to institutionalize the adaptations of the past decade and increase the military's capability for smaller-scale, but equally complex, counterinsurgency and stabilization efforts.
III. West Replies:
Christopher Sims essentially argues that counterinsurgency theory is sound; the problem, he says, lies with the soldiers who do not know how to implement it. He observes that modern counterinsurgency doctrine was conceived by "warrior-intellectuals" who applied lessons from cultural sensitivity and anthropology and urged soldiers to act as therapists and conflict managers.
But such concepts are fundamentally incompatible with the reality of everyday combat. I spent many years on the battlefields and in the villages of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. From what I saw at the ground level, counterinsurgency was -- and is -- a branch of warfare. War is the orchestration of violence in order to force your enemy to agree to your terms. U.S. soldiers carry rifles rather than checkbooks for a basic reason: to kill the enemy. To treat counterinsurgency as social science is to deny that violence remains at its essential center.
Military force is the ultimate arbiter of Afghanistan's future -- and today, the Taliban are the superior fighting force. They have not won hearts and minds; most Pashtuns dislike them. But the Afghan army cannot yet stand up to their enemy due to poor civilian and military leadership, tribal affiliations, and corruption. Yes, the defects of the Kabul government are deplorable. Many states, however, have weathered insurgencies without building an honest government responsive to the people. Afghanistan can survive with a weak government and a subsistence economy, provided its armed forces can keep the Taliban at bay. Conversely, the country cannot survive with a weak military, regardless of the quality of the central government and the economy.
This means that the Taliban must be beaten on the battlefield. Of course, this task will require the Pashtun tribes to, at the very least, not actively support the Taliban. This requires that Afghan security forces actively protect the population. That is the fundamental military task of counterinsurgency. There should be no mincing of words about the role of force and violence. If Afghan soldiers shirk from patrols, refuse to drive down mine-laced roads, or avoid villages that fly Taliban flags, they will lose. The essential problem in Afghanistan is that the Taliban are a fierce, dedicated enemy, willing to risk death and to kill.
As the historian Victor Davis Hanson wrote in his 2001 book Carnage and Culture, "Military history must never stray from the tragic story of killing." Hanson argued that, "to speak of war in any other fashion brings with it a sort of immorality." He continued: "Euphemism in battle narrative or the omission of graphic killing altogether is a near criminal offense of the military historian." In other words, the very term "warrior-intellectual" is an oxymoron because it suggests that killing is not the basic mission of the soldier challenged to battle.
Fernando Luján, meanwhile, argues that counterinsurgency as "nation building on a massive scale" is a "myth." He objects to "demonizing a false, straw-man version of counterinsurgency that calls for tens of thousands of troops and a commitment to nation building."
But like it or not, nation building has been the reality, not the myth. In Afghanistan, there are now 100,000 U.S. soldiers and 44,000 soldiers from other NATO countries responsible for safeguarding the Pashtun population while improving governance, combating corruption, delivering economic projects, and instituting the rule of law. These tasks are carried out in compliance with the joint U.S. Army-Marine Corps field Manual 3-24, entitled Counterinsurgency. That manual was signed in 2006 by General David Petraeus, now the director of the CIA, and General James Amos, currently the Commandant of the Marine Corps. On the first page, the manual states, "Soldiers and Marines are expected to be nation-builders as well as warriors."
Luján argues that those units most successful at counterinsurgency "have learned to stop playing Santa Claus." Not quite. The U.S. military in Afghanistan has carried out 16,000 development projects since 2001. Overall, the United States has disbursed more than $18 billion in aid over the same period. Aid from Western countries accounts for most of Afghanistan's national budget and economic growth (aside from the annual opium crop).
As for what Luján identifies as the "undeniable reality" that "U.S. and Afghan units working closely together have been able to draw the local populations to their side" in large parts of Helmand and Kandahar, this would indeed be marvelous news, given that those regions are the heartland of the Taliban movement. But until U.S. forces depart, it is impossible to know how reliable the allegiance of local populations to the Kabul government actually is. After all, as Petraeus observed last year, the rural Pashtun people have survived through the years by being "professional chameleons."
On the whole, Luján's observations amount to a recommendation for fewer conventional battalions and for more Special Forces advisory teams. On that point, he and I are in complete agreement. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. military should have concentrated from the start on building strong indigenous armed forces. But this did not happen; neither the U.S. Army nor the Marine Corps gave proper attention to the development of a U.S. adviser corps. Only recently has this changed. The current U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John R. Allen, faces the challenge of increasing the number of military advisers while decreasing the size of the overall force.
Major Luján correctly points out that a robust advisory effort is a necessary but far from sufficient requirement for success, which is minimally deﬁned as preventing the Taliban from taking over major Afghan cities. Without advisers, the Afghan security forces are likely to fall apart. Advisers must share the risks on the battleﬁeld.
"Having advisers outside the wire -- in the fight -- is not optional," General Allen told me last August. "It is required."
Even with advisers, the military situation will still remain perilous as long as Pakistan provides shelter to the Taliban and other terrorist organizations. It is impossible to predict how the situation in Afghanistan will unfold, given that the outcome depends on Afghans and Pakistanis, not Americans.
What is predictable, however, is that the younger generation of U.S. Army and Marine officers will reject the definition of counterinsurgency as requiring wholesale nation building. In Afghanistan, the U.S. military tried to do too much.
Copyright © by the Council on Foreign Relations, Inc.