The Great Myth: Counterinsurgency
Foreign Policy in Focus
July 22, 2010
There are moments that define a war. Just such a one occurred on June 21, when Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke and U.S. Ambassador to
As the chopper swung around to land, the Taliban opened fire, sending journalists scrambling for cover and Marines into full combat mode. According to Matthew Green of the Financial Times, "The crackle of gunfire lasted about 20 minutes and continued in the background as a state department official gave a presentation to Mr. Holbrooke about
When it was launched in March, the Marjah operation was billed as a "turning point" in the Afghan War, an acid test for the doctrine of counterinsurgency, or "COIN,"
a carefully designed strategy to wrest a strategic area from insurgent forces, in this case the Taliban, and win the "hearts and minds" of the local people. In a sense Marjah has indeed defined COIN, just not quite in the way its advocates had hoped for.
The Missing Cornerstone
In his bible for counterinsurgency, Field Manual 3-24, General David Petraeus argues, "The cornerstone of any COIN effort is establishing security for the civilian populace." As one village elder who attended the Holbrooke meeting - incognito for fear of being recognized by the Taliban - told Green, "There is no security in Marjah."
Nor in much of the rest of the country. The latest
That the war in
Opposition to the war in
But there is a tendency to blame the growing debacle on conditions peculiar to
invaders: It is landlocked, filled with daunting terrain, and populated by people who don't cotton to outsiders. But it would be a serious error to attribute the current crisis to
A Failing Doctrine
The problem is not
Counterinsurgency has seized the high ground in the Pentagon and the halls of
"Counterinsurgency aims at reshaping a nation and its society over the long haul," says military historian Frank Chadwick, and emphasizes "infrastructure improvements, ground-level security, and building a bond between the local population and the security forces."
In theory, COIN sounds reasonable; in practice, it almost always fails. Where it has succeeded - the
COIN is always presented as politically neutral, a series of tactics aimed at winning hearts and minds.
But in fact, COIN has always been part of a strategy of domination by a nation(s) and/or socioeconomic class.
The supposed threat of communism and its companion, domino theory, sent soldiers to countries from
Replace communism with terrorism, and today's rationales sound much the same. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates described
But, as counterterrorism expert Richard Barrett points out, the Afghan Taliban have never been a threat to the West, and the idea that fighting the Taliban would reduce the threat of terrorism is "complete rubbish."
In any case, the al-Qaeda operatives who pulled off the attack on the
Hearts, Minds, and Strategic Interests
No, it is not all about oil and gas, but a lot of it is.
Winning "hearts and minds" is just a tactic aimed at insuring our paramount interests and the interests of the "friendly" governments that we fight for. Be nice to the locals unless the locals decide that they don't much like long-term occupation, don't trust their government, and might have some ideas about how they should run their own affairs.
Then "hearts and minds" turns nasty. U.S. Special Operations Forces carry out as many as five "kill and capture" raids a day in Afghanistan, and have assassinated or jailed more than 500 Afghans who are alleged insurgents in the past few months. Thousands of others languish in prisons.
The core of COIN is coercion, whether it is carried out with a gun or truckloads of money. If the majority of people accept coercion - and the COIN supported government doesn't highjack the trucks - then it may work.
Then again, maybe not.
This should hardly come as a surprise. Most regimes the
In many ways, COIN is the most destructive and self- defeating strategy a country can employ, and its toxicity is long-term. Take what didn't get reported in the recent firing of former Afghan War commander General Stanley McChrystal.
COIN's Long History
McChrystal cut his COIN teeth running Special Operations death squads in Iraq, similar to the Vietnam War's Operation Phoenix, which killed upwards of 60,000 Viet Cong cadre and eventually led to the Mai Lai massacre. The success of
But COIN advocates read history selectively, and the loss in
So COIN is back. And it is working no better than it did in the 1960s. Take the counterterrorism portion of the doctrine.
Over the past several years, the
But it has also killed more than 1,000 civilians and inflamed not only the relatives of those killed or wounded in the attacks, but Pakistanis in general.
According to an International Republican Institute poll, 80 percent of Pakistanis are now anti-American, and the killer drones are a major reason.
"Hearts and minds" soldiers like Petraeus don't much like the drone attacks, because they alienate
- those we call the `bad Taliban' - actually leaves behind leaderless, undisciplined gangs of armed rent-a- guns who are more interested in living off the population we're supposed to protect than being peeled off into abject Afghan poverty."
The "hearts and minds" crew have their own problems.
McChrystal and Petraeus have long stressed the counterproductive effect of using airpower and artillery against insurgents, because it inevitably produces civilian casualties. But this means that the war is now between two groups of infantry, one of which knows the terrain, speaks the local language, and can turn from a fighter to a farmer in a few minutes.
As the recent Rolling Stone article found, McChrystal was unpopular because his troops felt he put them in harm's way. Firefights that used to be ended quickly by airstrikes go on for hours, and the Taliban are demonstrating that, given a level playing field, they are skilled fighters.
In his recent testimony before Congress, Petraeus said he would "bring all assets to bear" to ensure the safety of the troops and "re-examine" his ban on air power. But if he does, civilian casualties will rise, increasing local anger and recruits for the Taliban.
The war in
One of the key COIN ingredients is a reliable local army, but
"American soldiers in Kandahar report that, for their own security, they don't tell their ANA colleagues when and where they are going on patrol," writes Jones.
Somebody told those insurgents that Holbrooke and Eikenberry were coming to Marjah.
Afghanistan is ethnically divided, desperately poor, and finishing its fourth decade of war. Morale among
The sergeant is right, though the Afghans are the big losers. But as bad as
There was a time when the old imperial powers and the
15 million people have lost their jobs. As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told the Huffington Post, "It just can't be that we have a domestic agenda that is half the size of the defense budget."
Empires can choose to step back with a certain grace, as the Dutch did in
The choice is ours.
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs