The Next COIN Laboratory

Kevin Drum cites a Juan Cole post questioning the emerging conventional wisdom of refocusing our military commitment from Iraq to Afghanistan, and thinks out loud a bit:

The main argument for beefing up our presence in Afghanistan is obvious: It’s the home of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and these are the groups we really ought to be fighting. But what’s left of al-Qaeda is in Pakistan, and Cole argues that this is largely where the remnants of the Taliban are too. . . So if we’re not going to invade Pakistan (and we’re not). . .then what are we doing there?

Kevin’s not quite sure what the answer is, but it’s worth remembering that the problem as it is currently constituted is the result of a war waged using an ill-adapted doctrine. The high-tech, low-mass invasion took out the nest just as planned, but allowed all the hornets to scatter. Now that we’ve adapted doctrine to the infantry-heavy COIN approach, we don’t have the military necessary to apply it, and the situation has outstripped the ability of both doctrine and force structure to address it.

One of the major limitations of the COIN doctrine as currently articulated is that it remains a theater-based approach, while ignoring the regional context. Neighbors matter, and if they’re not on board, COIN won’t work. Without Pakistan’s active assistance, we’re likely to fail in Afghanistan, with or without a troop infusion. But even with Pakistan’s active assistance, the outcome is far from certain.

I’d argue that what makes Afghanistan more significant than Iraq is not the adversary or the strategic stakes so much as the model. It’s a testing ground for the COIN doctrine that, for all its theoretically satisfying allure and debatable success in Iraq, doesn’t guarantee a similar outcome in Afghanistan. In many ways, Iraq is far from an ideal case study, since its sectarian and factional civil war component, not to mention its more solidified nation-state identity, make it not as “pure” an insurgency as Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is where COIN, and future stabilization interventions that will likely take their inspiration from it, will go to live or die. Something to consider before we grow the army and sink it into the Forgotten War.