Marja and the Evolution of COIN

I’ve held off on any Marja “analysis,” because a lot of what I’ve read has struck me as “play-by-play” commentary, and I’m pretty convinced that whatever impact offshore observers can have on the debate is better directed toward strategic objectives than tactical operations.

What does strike me as significant about the offensive, though, is what it reveals in terms of the evolution of U.S. COIN operations. It’s been clear for a while that in the “clear, hold and build” model, the U.S. military has no real problem with the “clear” phase, provided it is adequately resourced. The decisive phases in COIN, and those that continue to present the greatest difficulty, are the “hold and build” phases that go into “winning the peace.”

In other words, the outcome of the “Battle of Marja” has never been in doubt, just as the outcome of the “War of Marja” will only be known a year from now, if that.

Nevertheless, if in conventional war, winning battles is necessary and eventually sufficient, and if in “early” COIN, winning battles was unnecessary because not sufficient, Marja shows that in COIN’s latest evolution, winning battles is now necessary even if not sufficient.

But “winning” Marja is necessary less for any damage it will do to the enemy, than for the way in which it reinforces the required narrative of the Afghan Surge — namely, retaking the military initiative. Having spent the past four years focusing on the population-centric governance and development issues that represent the underwater aspects of the COIN iceberg, the U.S. military seems to have remembered the importance of the visible tip of the iceberg represented by demonstrable tactical success on the ground.

Also noteworthy is the new approach to the “clear” phase that Marja demonstrates. Again, the outcome of the “battle” was never in doubt: ISAF forces would take the town, and Taliban insurgents would either disappear into the civilian population or simply withdraw. So telegraphing the coalition’s intentions was essentially an effort to replace a full-blown assault, thereby minimizing the most destructive phase of COIN.*

What remains to be seen, and where the jury is still out on COIN, is whether retaking the initiative without exacting damage on the insurgency’s foot soldiers will be sufficient to drive insurgent leaders to accept a negotiated political resolution to the conflict. The advantage of the Afghan Surge is that we are now closer to finding that out.

* Update: Given the reporting on the ferocity of the fighting, that effort seems to have backfired.

More World Politics Review