COIN for Dummies

If you find yourself going, “Whuh?” everytime I or other bloggers mention COIN, or if you know what it refers to but never had the time or inclination to go through the U.S. Army field manual articulating it, the recently released U.S. Government Counterinsurgency Guide (.pdf) is a very informative, readable way to get up to speed.

If the manual reads like a “lessons learned” from the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, that’s because it is. That explains why, for instance, it stresses the difficulties involved in COIN campaigns in the aftermath of forcible regime change. It also explains why, by the manual’s own criteria, neither war would have been terribly advisable. This, for instance, is hard to read without thinking of Afghanistan:

Where terrorist groups are present, policy makers may be highly motivated to engage, in order to prevent the emergence of transnational threats from under-governed or insurgent-controlled areas. However, large-scale or clumsy intervention in such areas may actually lead to a backlash from local people who are alienated by increased government presence. (p.39)

And this is hard to read without thinking of Iraq:

International involvement in a conflict that does not currently include a transnational element may give a foothold to extremists from outside the affected country to exploit, internationalizing the conflict from both the government and insurgent sides. (p.39)

As for the way forward, if this isn’t a very damning assessment of our chances in Afghanistan, I don’t know what one is:

. . . An affected government that cannot control its borders, has large areas of ungoverned space near its frontiers, or faces an active insurgent sanctuary in a neighboring country will be particularly challenged in conducting COIN. Policy makers must judge the likelihood that areas of ungoverned space can be brought under government control. They must also take a regional view, considering whether neighboring countries can be persuaded to play a constructive role (or at least be dissuaded from undermining the affected government). Assisting an affected country without an effective strategy for border security, reduction of ungoverned space and denial of cross-border insurgent sanctuaries is highly unlikely to succeed over the long term. (p.39)

Another essential element of COIN is information operations in general, but narrative in particular. I mentioned this yesterday in a post about why sensitive U.S.-Pakistani military cooperation within Pakistan might have been leaked recently. Here’s the relevant passage from the manual:

Influence: Effective COIN requires the shaping of opinions amongseveral different population groups through messages and actions:

– Affected Nation: The fundamental influence aim in COIN is to buildconfidence in the government while diminishing the credibility andinfluence of the insurgents. All actions and messages should supportthis aim.

– U.S. Population: Where the United States isconducting a direct intervention in support of an affected nation, thecosts involved (financial and human) will often be high and prolonged.Understanding and support in the U.S. will be key if the nation is toremain engaged long enough to achieve decisive effect. . . .

Theinfluence strategy must cascade down from a set of strategic narrativesfrom which all messages and actions should be derived. The narrativesof the affected government and supporting nations will be different butcomplimentary. . . . (pp. 19-20) [Emphasis added.]

The challenge I flagged yesterday is that, in the case of the U.S. and Pakistan, the narratives are different and mutually hostile.

Finally, there’s this:

Provocation: Insurgents often commit acts (such as atrocities) that are intended to prompt opponents to react irrationally, in ways that harm their interests. . .

This, of course, is the tragedy of the Iraq War. Had this kind of thinking been more prevalent in the winter of 2002-03, we might never have made the mistake of invading. But this kind of thinking is a result of that mistake. There has been some concern that the U.S. military’s shift to a COIN approach might create a temptation for future interventions. It’s reassuring that the current manual reads more like a cautionary tale than a call to arms.

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