COIN Dogma and Afghan Legitimacy

One of the ironies of human thought is the way in which a new conceptual paradigm initially empowers effective action by challenging outmoded assumptions, only to later become hardened and resistant to empirical challenges itself. At that point, the once-revolutionary system of thought often does little more than empower the stubborn preference for theory over reality.

That process used to take generations, but with the advent of modern communications, the pace has accelerated. I think it’s possible to argue that in the case of the U.S. Army’s COIN doctrine, we now have an example of it happening over the course of two years.

As a result largely of the COIN field manual’s insistence on this matter, it has now become a truism that armed insurgencies are caused and fed by social grievances arising from poor governance, corruption and lack of legitimacy. And that truism has largely driven our approach to both the political and military objectives in Afghanistan.

But is it really the case that corruption, poor governance and abuse of power cause insurgencies? If so, how do we explain the lack of a popular uprising in all the many corrupt and abusive countries of the world? For that matter, how do we explain the lack of a popular uprising in, say, Maricopa County, Arizona?

Here, from an otherwise unremarkable India Defense Review article by Harjeet Singh, is an explanation of what motivates armed insurgency thatstrikes me as far more satisfying:

People fight when they feel that (a) they can accomplish theirobjectives by force; (b) they feel that there is no alternative totheir cause except the use of force; or (c) religion has swayed theirideological thinking into the notion that their cause is just.

The COIN doctrine’s political emphasis on good governance and legitimacyare obviously meant to respond to special cases of (b), and its military emphasis on security ismeant to address (a). But to insist that such a formulaic approach can offer any certainty ignores that Afghanistan has been governed by violence for 30 years, and that far from beginning in 2001, the Taliban insurgency marks the continuation of an ongoing civil war driven by competing interests and irreconcilable agendas as much as by questions of governance.

I’d argue that the focus on legitimacy and governance is a case of our own cultural inheritance — of which the COIN doctrine is a product — filtering into the COIN field manual. I’d also argue that, given the emphasis the field manual places on narrative, the questions of legitimacy and good governance are intended more for the domestic U.S. audience than for the host country. That is, they are more designed for generating domestic political support for the war than Afghan support. It’s in that regard that the Afghan election fiasco is so damaging, more than for tactical or operational reasons in-theater.

This is not to argue that good governance and legitimacy are not, in themselves, just and worthy goals. They are. It’s just that I’m not convinced they are necessary, let alone sufficient, to stabilizing Afghanistan.

The implications for American military objectives there, for the logic behind any long-term nation-building efforts, and for the broader application of COIN doctrine elsewhere are enormous. But because COIN doctrine has now become COIN dogma, they remain largely unexamined.

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