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September 08, 2009

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But a large portion of those gains is attributable to several unrelated developments: the coopting of the majority of the Sunni insurgency (Awakenings), the Sadrists decision to lay low,

Rough translation: "COIN practices don't work, if you leave out their most important successes."

I mean, come on. That the Surge and COIN in Iraq was not an overwhelming and golden success, bringing happiness and ponies to everyone does not mean we have to build strawman to creat the opposite position.

Explain.

Are you saying that the Sadrists decision to lay low was born out of COIN doctrine? Or that the Awakenings strategy is COIN doctrine?

Again, please explain.

Rough translation: "COIN practices don't work, if you leave out their most important successes."

Correlation is not causation. While COIN may have had some influence on the other processes such as the Awakenings, it's certainly fair to point out that
1)It was ancillary to those processes. At best, necessary but not sufficient (ie if we assume that the other processes wouldn't have worked without implementing COIN)
2)COIN didn't work if "work" means achieving the fundamental objective of political reconciliation. Of course, COIN can't do that on its own, but this failure does pose the question whether COIN + other processes can be successful in an environment of multi-ethnic strife and weak or nonexistence respect for democratic institutions.

The degree to which COIN can be labeled a success for the reduction in violence back to pre-2006 levels is debatable- the fact that Iraq is still unstable and prone to political and sectarian violence is not.

If I understand it, not to justify it:Karzai is a Pashtun and would expect overwhelming support in the south, but for the Taliban causing fear so that people didn't vote. Karzai supporters then rationalize ballot box stuffing-giving Karzai the votes Karzai would have won if country safe enough to vote (and multiplying by up to 10 for good measure).
If this was inspired by watching Iran what a terrible result undercutting all those nationbuilders who want US to stay.
Wouldn't the best result for US would be runoff with Abdullah winning? Otherwise the stench both domestically and among NATO countries is going to be so great that support for continued presence of troops will vanish.

I think it would be useful to classify the antiCOIN arguments. I think they can be divided into three groups. The first group is that Afghanistan has never been and will never be amenable to COIN operations. I would disagree, Afghanistan had a functional government prior to the Soviet invasion, and it smacks of ethnocentrism to argue that the Afghan people somehow don't want to have the same things that others have.

The second group would be that COIN is impossible in Afghanistan because we have reached a point of no return. I am a bit sympathetic to this, but we have to understand why it is not possible to reconstruct a workable nation state. Is it because we need more help for other nations? Is it that we simply cannot trust Pakistan and we cannot put enough pressure on Pakistan to stop this? Is it because the cost in money and US lives is simply too high and unacceptable for domestic consumption? Depending on what the true reasons are, one might argue that it simply requires us to raise the ante, while other reasons may suggest that we have to consider alternatives. I think this is the area where most of your arguments have come from, hence the back and forth on them.

In this post, you begin to touch on the 3rd group of reasons, that COIN is no longer workable in any form. Surprisingly, I have a lot more sympathy to this than to group 2 arguments. It may be that the increased technology has tilted the balance towards insurgents, so that remote controlled IEDs, and availablity of supplies and knowledge now makes it possible for a group to wreak so much havoc that the time lag between them disrupting society and COIN forces recreating the ability to work against them thru the population without alienating that population is too great to overcome. One possible refinement could suggest that COIN is going to be something limited to outbreaks in more developed countries because of denser population and the social networks, but not in a place which is poorly developed.

It is possible to blend a lot of these reasons together, but I think it would be useful if you would clearly state whether you think that COIN is, by definition, no longer possible in today's world. If, as Nir Rosen suggests, COIN is war and war is immoral, therefore COIN is immoral, this is going to change the ground of the argument. On the other hand, if you think that there is a place for COIN in the modern world, what specific points make it untenable in Afghanistan and are these points long standing or could we imagine, 10-20 years from now, trying this again after another Taliban government has come and gone.

One note on COIN's/The Surge's success in Iraq: It should be noted that the Awakenings strategy preceded The Surge/COIN implementation.

LJ,

Let me try to break this up. First of all, COIN operations (as even its proponents will tell you) are exceedingly difficult in all settings, and historically have had a tiny, tiny ratio of successes to failures.

However, there are some settings that are more conducive to realizing that slim chance for success. For example, where the insurgent group is tainted by foreign influence/origin, and where their numbers are relatively small. See, ie, the Malay counterinsurgency.

It also helps if the counterinsurgents are indigenous (with an intimate and first hand knowledge of local language, culture, geography, etc.), and if the government has the means to deliver vital services and protect large portions of the population.

Either way, the counterinsurgents in question must be extremely patient (thinking in decades not years) and willing to pay for decades not years of conflict.

Within the context of "all COIN operations are near impossible and very rarely succeed," Afghanistan is a particular hard case for a US-implemented COIN operation because:

1. Despite brief periods, there has not been a strong central government, and power has traditionally devolved to tribal and localized interests. In trying to upend this natural order, the US is inspiring resistance where none was before (see, ie, the mounting Tajik opposition).

2. Due to its decentralized societal structures, delivering vital services via a central government is difficult, and due to the terrain, geography and troop numbers, protecting the population is also difficult. Rather than effectively deliver services, the government is rife with corruption, and the Taliban and other insurgents groups are able to exploit enormous and pervasive gaps in security (you touched on this point when talking about levels of development and population density allowing for COIN success)

3. Afghanistan has never taken kindly to outsiders, and many insurgents are insurgents almost purely based on the fact that they view the US as an infidel conquering army. Further, due to the fact that the US is foreign to the region, we lack knowledge of language, culture, tribal histories (conflicts, allegiances, etc), and a whole host of other information vital to COIN operations. Even now, after 8 years, the majority of troops defending the govt are US not Afghan (troops in the fight at least).

4. Pakistan. Afghanistan's neighbor, Pakistan, doesn't want the Taliban to be defeated. Or at least, doesn't want the Karzai government to succeed. Unlike us, Pakistan has an intimate knowledge of language, culture, tribal histories (conflicts, allegiances, etc), and is able to navigate these better than us. Also, they have proximity which greatly enhances their staying power. And they know it.

So in short:

1. Counterinsurgent operations by a foreign power in Afghanistan as it currently stands (after the ravages of the Soviet war and the conflicts in the aftermath) are extremely difficult, even by COIN's long-shot standards.

2. Yes, due to the difficulties involved, we could only succeed (maybe) after multiple decades, multiple trillions of dollars and multiple thousands of US lives (and many times that in Afghan lives) - and we don't have any of those to spare.

3. COIN operations, as a rule, are not doomed to failure, but their prospects for success are remote and should be relied upon only as a last resort where absolutely necessary. That said, in certain settings they have a better chance for success.

Importantly, insurgencies cannot claim territory extra-nationally. They are, by definition, intra-national struggles, and it would be best for the US to allow nations to handle their own insurgencies. Generally speaking, insurgencies do not threaten the US unless you foresee the South rising again. That's good news because we're no good at fighting them in foreign countries (no one is, really).

LJ,

Some of your specific questions:

Is it that we simply cannot trust Pakistan and we cannot put enough pressure on Pakistan to stop this?

Yes, and if we tried to push Pakistan to the brink, we might just tear the nation asunder. Pakistan is paranoid about India (think US vs. USSR plus some). Our mission in Afghanistan is greatly weakening Pakistan vis-a-vis India. Thus, they aren't really cooperating. In fact, Pakistan's defense/India hawks and religious extremists believe that the US is deliberately trying to weaken Pakistan, destabilize Pakistan and then seize its nukes.

If we forced them to cooperate or pushed them as hard as we could, their defense/India hawks and religious extremists would be pushed together in one bloc resisting outside pressure. Worst case scenario.

Is it because the cost in money and US lives is simply too high and unacceptable for domestic consumption?

Not just "domestic consumption." Too high for any reasonable calculus of costs/benefits from a national security or moral perspective. Domestic opinion is usually lagging behind the obvious in terms of costs/benefits from a national security or moral perspective.

It may be that the increased technology has tilted the balance towards insurgents, so that remote controlled IEDs, and availablity of supplies and knowledge now makes it possible for a group to wreak so much havoc that the time lag between them disrupting society and COIN forces recreating the ability to work against them thru the population without alienating that population is too great to overcome.

I think this is true. Couple that with the growth of nationalism, and it's a potent mixture of COIN busting.

Afghanistan is entering its fourth decade of essentially unbroken civil war now, a consideration that should inform any discussion of strategic or long-term goals there.

One reason why I would have little confidence in the US military's counter-insurgency efforts in Afghanistan is the fact that, amid all the tired comparisons to Malaya and Algeria, I see little evidence that American strategists are trying to learn the lessons of the Soviet Red Army's remarkably successful military campaign in Afghanistan in the 1980s. During the past three decades, the only two periods of relative stability with a reasonably effective and respected government in Kabul were 1) Najibullah's Moscow-backed regime in the late 80s/early 90s, and 2) less convincingly, the Pakistan-backed Taliban regime at the end of the 90s/early 00s.

Concerning the Soviet solution: don't believe Rambo 3, the Red Army eventually adapted quite well to counter-insurgency necessities, and eventually broke the back of the insurgency by around 86/87 I think, despite the insurgents having protected rear areas and sources of supply in Pakistan. The Soviet political strategy from the outset, right from their initial invasion, was actually very sound. They weren't remotely trying to establish a communist state in Afghanistan, in fact they explicitly castigated their Afghan clients for not fostering a broad base of popular support by including different tribal and religious factions in their coalition.

Pretty much everybody who has looked seriously at the Soviet effort in Afghanistan has concluded that the Najibullah regime might have lasted indefinitely, had the Soviet Union not collapsed.

Lessons for the US:

Well the first positive is the fact that both the military and civilian components of the NATO/US effort ought to be more competent than their Soviet counterparts in the early 80s. Moscow actually had a decent strategy, but poor implementation. My probably overly-simplistic assessment of the current US/NATO effort is that is has the opposite problem: competent people trying to implement an incoherent strategy.

The second positive is that the insurgents are no longer backed by a superpower as the assorted sordid groups that the US funneled money and guns to in the 1980s were. Furthermore, regional players like Pakistan, Iran, Russia etc do need to be more circumspect in their involvement with the Afghan civil war in deference to the US' ability to leverage them on the international scene.

The clearest disadvantage I see is the fact that the US is simply very far away from Afghanistan. I think it's no coincidence that the only two credible candidates for stable governments in Kabul over the last three decades both had the backing of a neighbouring state: Najibullah was supported by the USSR, the Taliban by Pakistan. This makes it all the more difficult for Washington to supply the armaments and civilian supplies necessary to prop up any regime in Kabul, and it puts neighbouring states that are allied with Washington but have their own distinct interests (notably Pakistan) in the driver's seat. Washington was content to let Pakistan run the show in the 1980s, since all the Reagan administration wanted to do then was turn the country into a bloody mess, not achieve anything constructive.

A second consequence of America's distance from the fighting zone is military: it's very expensive to fight a war halfway around the world, especially when you need to protect your lines of supply (which seems to be a growing problem now). The Soviets were able to wage a war relatively on the cheap compared to NATO today (the idea that the war in Afghanistan bankrupted the Soviet Union is simply Republican campaign-soundbite nonsense).

The other major disadvantage facing the US today might simply be the fact that two decades farther down the road from the relatively successful Soviet withdrawal, Afghanistan might just be too messed up to fix now.

I should add that any strategy that doesn't foresee a Sharia-based state in some form, most likely one tolerates poppy cultivation, must be doomed to failure. In addition to all their other problems, if the NATO forces are also trying to create a non-Sharia regime and eliminate the poppy trade, they're just going to be on an express train to deludedville.

"US/NATO effort is that is has the opposite problem: competent people trying to implement an incoherent strategy."
Great thinking on this subject here. If I may offer up some very good
further clarification of what the hell is ACTUALLY going on, as opposed to what is hoped-

http://www.veteransforcommonsense.org/index.php/national-security/1227-tom-engelhardt-

I hope OW writers/contributors find this piece of use.


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