COIN in Kabul (and in Washington)

Joshua Foust highlights the disconnect between the public COINspeak surrounding Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s appointment to run the Afghanistan war and the private KILLspeak surrounding his appointment to run the Afghanistan war:

[W]hile publicly McChrystal says everything rightabout being population-centric and all that, very few, and I mean thisseriously, VERY few of the groundpounders within USFOR-A are gettingexcited about finally executing a proper counterinsurgency. Instead,all the excitement is about “finally” being able to “take the fight tothe enemy,” “now we get to kick some ass,” and similar sentiments.

In other words, at least a large number of soldiers, both within andwithout the U.S. command in Afghanistan, are excited about McChrystal’sreputation for killing—and not for his reputation as a “three block” counterinsurgent.

That reminded me of a WaPo article I read last week that I had trouble wrapping my head around:

“We are going to look at those parts of the country that are mostimportant — and those typically, in an insurgency, are the populationcenters,” McChrystal said in an interview shortly after pinning on hisfourth star. . . .

McChrystal’s comments suggested that he wanted to pull forces out ofsome of the more remote, mountainous areas of Afghanistan where fewpeople live and where insurgent fighters may be seeking refuge. Inrecent months these isolated pockets have been the scene of some of themost intense fighting between U.S. troops and insurgents.

That brings into sharp focus why efforts to square the COIN circle in Afghanistan strike me as misguided. McChrystal’s remarks are classic “oil stain” COIN theory, where you secure population centers and then spread outward. But in Afghanistan, the fight just isn’t in the population centers, in the same way that it was in Iraq, for instance, or in Algeria during the anti-colonial war from which the “oil stain” principle derives.

So in order to follow COIN doctrine, which has by now reached the level of a religious commandment, we’ll be conceding liberty of movement and action to the insurgency, thereby enabling it to more effectively contest our zones of control. Ideally, of course, McChrystal would have enough forces to both secure population centers and take the fight to the insurgency. But he doesn’t. I don’t see how turning Afghanistan into a nation of FOBs will resolve that fundamental shortcoming, nor do I think it’s the right way to apply COIN principles in the face of it. More likely, though, is that the COIN rhetoric is simply a scaffolding that’s been slapped over a strategy that has neither the resources, the political will, nor the local support necessary to succeed.

Meanwhile, with the COIN crowd on the ascendancy in Washington these days, it’s to be expected that they take some incoming fire. And this Kelley Beaucar Vlahos takedown of the recent CNAS COINgasm in Washington does not disappoint on that score. I don’t like the tone of the piece, which smacks of score-settling. The CNAS folks, many of whom have contributed to WPR, are all extremely smart and intellectually honest. That said, they’re all grown-ups, most of them have served in warzones, and they often go after each other worse than a lot of what’s in the piece.

So hopefully they’ll get over the cheap shots and pay attention to Vlahos’ takeaway:

But thereis one major, potentially devastating pitfall: COIN has yet to be fullytested or even legitimated by any success outside of the surgenarrative. So while one well-connected think tank gets top billing inWashington, the people of Iraq and Afghanistan — as well as the Americanmen and women serving dutifully there — remain “long-term” guinea pigs.

That’s something that even the most fervent COIN advocates should keep in mind. I’ve said on numerousoccasions that I find COIN doctrine intuitivelysatisfying and intellectually appealing. But the strength of any theory is how well it ultimately reflects and responds to empirical challenges. And on that score, the verdict on COIN, both in Washington and Kabul, is still out.

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