COIN is Simple (But Simple is Difficult)

COIN Is Simple

The basic tenets of counterinsurgency are very simple. However, as Clausewitz will forever remind us “[e]verything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult.”[1] Certain members of the US military’s misgivings about the Prussian’s contemporary relevance notwithstanding, this quote pretty much sums up the problems with the current debate around counterinsurgency. This post will consider some of the key features of the present discussions on COIN, in an attempt to show just how important it is to establish and maintain a clear notion of what needs to be done.

The Classics

There are countless treatises on both insurgency—Mao, Lawrence, Guevara, for example—and its antithesis, counterinsurgency. Several people have posited the best way to achieve “victory” in COIN operations. A large part of this consists of three things: consistency of message, patience and In spite of this, while both take a considerable amount of time (in Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, David Galula lists five post-colonial insurgencies, the shortest being five years)[2] the West’s focus on constant progress means that, rather than allowing the effects of policy changes, adaptations and reflections to take effect, we are hoping to constantly innovate practices which are largely effective, but which require a great deal of time, repetition and patience.

This is what General Sir Gerald Templar was getting at when he prescribed this method:

Get the priorities right.
Get the instructions right.
Get the organisation right.
Get the right people into the organisation.
Get the right spirit into the people.
Leave them to get on with it.[3]

What this article tries to do is to demonstrate the simplicity of counterinsurgency theory, and to compare it to the complexities of counterinsurgency practice. I think that it’s here that a lot of work could be done. Many people theorize about COIN, lots of COIN is done.

This is Going to Take a While

One of the key problems in Afghanistan at the moment is that, while the strategy is in place, it takes time for counterinsurgency strategy to take effect. What is important in Afghanistan is that the NATO troops there don’t get complacent. As David Kilcullen points out in the Q&A after his talk @Google, this happened to the British army in Iraq. “It turns out that most guys in the British army don’t have a lot of experience of actual counterinsurgency. Their experience is of peacekeeping from Bosnia and places like that. And it turns out there’s a subtle difference between peacekeeping and counterinsurgency. In peacekeeping you’re trying to keep the environment quiet; in counterinsurgency you’re trying to deal with a small radical organisation and get the population supporting the government.”

So Kilcullen’s argument is that counterinsurgency needs to be an active process. Without this activity, as the British found in Iraq, the insurgency can grumble under the surface and slowly gain traction, until it is much bigger, more advanced and therefore more difficult to control. Britain’s most recent experiences are not with counterinsurgency, but with peacekeeping operations. This meant that in Iraq, the British army (through well-intentioned inaction) allowed the insurgency to foment simply because it looked, on the surface, as though everything was going well—i.e. there was not a great deal of violence. The situation in Afghanistan is much more clearly an insurgency, and it has been that way from the outset.

Leave Them to Get on With it

The final tenet of Templar’s list, “Leave them to get on with it,” should be the mantra of ‘the powers that be’, given the situation in Afghanistan at present. The strategy is in place, the tactics are, by and large (Moshtarak had a mixed response), effective. What needs to happen now in Afghanistan is for the people (the general populations) of NATO countries to allow their soldiers to fight, to run the operations and, as is their unfortunate lot, (something that I acknowledge is difficult to say without experience, but is part of the social contract to which soldiers agree) to die, without calling for their hasty return as soon as a paltry, largely arbitrary, time ‘milestone’ is reached. This post at the excellent Kings of War blog sums up exactly that predicament. The Faceless Bureaucrat asks, among many others, two great questions. Quoting from Seth Jones’ article on the role of tribes in Afghanistan, he points out that “[r]ural communities … protecting their villages … may well be the desired endstate, but what are we to do in the meantime?” Second, he wonders, “[i]f bottom-up empowerment really does work, is there any place for foreigners to make it so in Afghanistan?”

I will attempt to answer these two questions with the best of my knowledge and understanding of the situation. I will look at the second question first.

If bottom-up empowerment really does work, is there any place for foreigners to make it so in Afghanistan?

I think that the answer to this is a resounding “Yes”. (Of course it comes with the caveat that we’re assuming that bottom-up empowerment works in the first instance, which I believe is the case, especially in massively overgrown populations.) In Afghanistan, with its serious corruption problem (many Afghan officials grow opium), it is really only through foreign intervention that anything approaching a bottom-up structure can be implemented. That is not to say that it would be impossible to achieve this. I’m sure future posts on this blog, looking at individual villages and towns as case studies, will show how it doesn’t work in some areas, and works better in others. What it is to say, however, is that it requires something radically different from the current ruleset. That is not to say that everything that is being done at present is detrimental, there are a great many areas where outside aid is useful, and beneficial.

What’s difficult about ruleset changes in countries with ancient traditions, such as Afghanistan (or the United Kingdom), is the fact that people inside these countries so strongly define themselves as “Afghan” or “British” that it is difficult to introduce ideas that challenge what it is to be a part of this group. Similarly, as Thomas PM Barnett is fond of saying, if you go into places like Afghanistan and start messing with their definitions of women as mothers, daughters, sisters, you’d better be ready for the backlash. This is in reference to the emancipation of women that the West (in particular the US) has as baggage it is carrying around the world with it, and is imposing on unwilling populaces as its own post-imperialist type of imperialism. I wholeheartedly agree with him—on many things but this in particular.

What Barnett’s concerns show, in terms of how the West’s intervention, under a largely noble remit, is affecting the indigenous people in Afghanistan, is that indeed, while the US and NATO have the military capabilities (“overmatched”, according to the Department of Defence) to fight and defeat the Taliban, and other groups within Afghanistan, because the Taliban is partly a political organization, along with being a highly effective fighting force,[4] counterinsurgency tactics are vital. However, the US army considers itself not trained or equipped for such endeavours.

As Seth Jones points out in this great piece for Foreign Affairs: “[i]n the absence of strong government institutions, groups formed based on descent from a common ancestor help the Pashtuns organize economic production, preserve political order, and defend themselves against outside threats.”[5] For centuries in the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas, of which Pashtun land constitutes a great majority), mechanisms have existed for getting things done, metering punishment and providing security. This set up is much more diffuse than any of the strictly hierarchical systems that govern much of the Western world.

The second question deserves close scrutiny. It is, I think, where current planning lies. However, this recent document shows that lessons are being learnt from the mistakes and failings of old policy and strategy. The most significant lesson learnt from the counternarcotics perspective, is that “large-scale eradication targeted toward Afghan poppy farmers was counterproductive and drove farmers to the insurgency.”[6] This seems to finally acknowledge John Glaze’s suggestion, from 2007 (which in turn builds on assertions in a 2006 Senlis (now ICOS) report), that the focus on the eradication of crops is serving only to alienate the opium farmers, to push them “into the arms of the Taliban, who offer loans, protection, and a chance to plant again.”[7]

As an aside and caveat, this post was written a while ago (28th May, 2010), when Moshtarak was still news and McChrystal was in charge. From this piece on the Danger Room blog, it seems like Petraeus is a classicist in his counterinsurgency thinking. He’s very much focused on the role of his forces in establishing small base areas and developing from there.

That’s not to say anything against General McChrystal. As a friend put it, McChrystal had similar ideas, but “he wasn’t the right personality for the job.” Petraeus is much more involved and hands-on engaged with the troops.

Whether it’s effective, given the history the US forces have created in Afghanistan remain to be seen.

I think that a follow-up post would be prudent in the near future.


[1] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, (Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 1997), 66.

[2] David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, (Praeger Security International: Westport, CT, 1964 (2006)), 2.

[3] John Cloake, Templer: Tiger of Malaya. The Life of Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer, (London: Harrap, 1985)”, 227, cited in John Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 90.

[4] See David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One, (London: Hurst, 2009), 39-41 for a critique of the fighting effectiveness of Taliban mujahideen.

[5] “It Takes the Villages: Bringing Change from Below in Afghanistan,” Foreign Affairs, 3.

[6] United States, Department of Defence, “Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan,” April 2010, 73.

[7] US Army War College, John A. Glaze, Opium and Afghanistan: Reassessing US Counternarcotics Strategy, (Carlisle PA: Strategic Studies Institute, October 2007), 11. Glaze quotes this information from page 68 of a Senlis report. It is in fact on page 69; Senlis Council, “Afghanistan’s Instability and the Return of the Taliban,” in Afghanistan Five Years Later: The Return of the Taliban (Kabul, Afghanistan: Senlis Council, Spring/Summer 2006), 69.

(Afghan Outsider is an Amazon affiliate. If you click on the book links and go on to buy the book, we receive a small commission. Thanks for your support.)


2 comments on “COIN is Simple (But Simple is Difficult)

  1. […] important from a counterinsurgency point of view, if nothing else. It’s one of the reasons why COIN is simple, but simple is difficult. Without the public’s understanding, both at home and in Afghanistan, of why we are there and […]

  2. […] is difficult. There’s no denying that. Counterinsurgency is complex. I’ve said that before, and will say it […]

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