Theory and Practice of COIN in Afghanistan

I don’t want to make too much of this NY Times story about al-Qaida operatives making their way from Pakistan to Yemen and Somalia. It’s based on a pretty small sample size, as well as on a “senior Obama administration official” who has every reason to attribute “some of the movement to ‘the enormous heat we’ve been putting on the leadership and themid-ranks’ with Predator strikes, launched from both Pakistan andAfghanistan.” After all, widening the drone strikes in Pakistan was one of President Barack Obama’s campaign stances, so it’s no surprise to see his administration pushing back against the growing opposition to them.

With that caveat, though, the Times story offers, if not proof, then a useful thought experiment for something I’ve mentioned the past couple of days (here and here), namely the risk of COIN advocates basing their policy proposals on theory rather than on empirical evidence.

The common wisdom among COIN advocates is that drone strikes in the FATA are counterproductive, because they go against the COIN principles of population-centric warfare that, they are convinced, represent a better approach to addressing al-Qaida’s presence in the region.

But what if the Times story is true, and drone strikes actually work? Would the COIN advocates be willing to reverse course and accept that the strikes might be a more cost-effective way to uproot al-Qaida from the area?

My point here isn’t that drone strikes definitely work, or that COIN definitely doesn’t. It’s just that the strength of the U.S. military has always been to be more attached to getting results than to maintaining doctrinal orthodoxy. Indeed, the COIN school emerged from the urgent need to change how we were doing things in Iraq. That reflects the fact that culturally speaking, the U.S. in general, and the U.S.military in particular, is very pragmatic andempirical. But so far, notwithstanding the triumphant narrative of the Iraq Surge, the empirical support for COIN tactics is debatable.

Joshua Foust, arguing along similar lines with regard to Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s upcoming Afghanistan War strategic review, talks about “pretending [that] preferred outcomesare an acceptable substitute for a strategy”:

Indeed, there is actually a substantial body of work about what ismost likely to be successful and what is most likely to be unsuccessfulin Afghanistan. While I haven’t read them all in detail, the fourprevious strategic reviews didn’t seem to recognize that. . . . With only sixty days to doyet another top-to-bottom review, what McChrystal is guaranteeing isyet more of a “tool box approach” to the war, in which the conventionwisdom will continue to be expressed in broad policy cliches (“protectthe people” “out-govern don’t out-gun” and so on), that actually lendthemselves to an extremely limited — and already tested — set of policies.

In the meanwhile, there are actually a number of governmentagencies — both military and non-military — that have collectively acquireddecades [worth] of experience in the post-9/11 environment in Afghanistan.

In other words, we’re so busy looking for a conceptual framework for our approach to the war that we risk overlooking the empirical record of what actually works. This reminds me of the old joke about the Frenchintellectual who challenges hiscolleague by demanding, “Your proposal works very well in practice, butdoes it work in theory?”

It would be a shame if we end up making ourselves the butt of that joke in Afghanistan.