Lorenzo Zambernardi and the Theory of COIN

Definitely Difficult

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

Lorenzo Zambernardi’s analysis [pdf], however, is concerning. He attempts to apply an overly simplistic framework on counterinsurgency; to ‘theorise’ it into existence. TPMB’s post attracted me because of its title: “COIN: It may work in the real world, but does it work in theory?” To my mind, counterinsurgency theory is sound. Get involved with the people. Get out of your big scary trucks and helicopters. Demonstrate that the Afghans will be better off under a less restrictive government. Clarify the pay-offs for the emancipation of women and the benefits this can provide.

The concepts behind COIN are timeless, in the same way that the ways in which people interact is timeless. Everybody loves, everybody hates. Everyone is scared, everyone feels safe. It is vital for governments to establish their authority, that they may viably maintain a monopoly on violence. It is important that government operates with at least a degree of transparency, that the people trusts it enough to make decisions on their behalf.

To continue the analogy: The concepts behind life are as timeless as those of COIN, because both are enacted by the same people. Therefore, sometimes mistakes will be made, sometime irrevocably. However, generally the precepts of COIN are sound.

Zambernardi apparently doesn’t think it’s that simple, and that we must make difficult, dangerously mutually-exclusive, choices if we are to make progress in Afghanistan. He invents an “impossible trilemma.” This relies on, he says, the notion that “it is impossible to simultaneously achieve: 1) force protection, 2) distinction between enemy combatants and noncombatants, and 3) the physical elimination of insurgents.” Essentially his argument is that a counterinsurgent can’t pursue two of these aims without ignoring the third.

You can’t, in Zambernardi’s world, do force protection, distinguish between combatants and non-combatants and eliminate the enemy all at once.

COIN is messy; life is messy

I think that he is wrong to suggest this. Yes, COIN is messy. War is messy. Yes, COIN is dangerous. War is dangerous. Yes, COIN can impact non-combatants. War has huge impacts on non-combatants. Scenes like this are inevitable. We are fighting a war. This may seem like a cynical and easy point of view to take, but I think, and so does Max Boot, that troops “should never doubt that they can call on all the firepower they need to win a fight—but they should never use firepower so promiscuously or inexactly that they will alienate the population and thus lose the war.”

You can make mistakes, as you can in life, but, you can also rectify mistakes. You must persist. You must work hard. You must accept what happens, and work around it.

Obviously, as perhaps the key tenet of counterinsurgency, (and, incidentally, why the Tamil Tigers might be making a comeback: “Ironically, the [Sinhalese] soldiers might now themselves be fomenting a renewed Tamil resistance”) the support of the people and their support of the government is vital in establishing the government’s authority. As Joshua Foust points out this is not being helped by an international community, particularly the US, that “should look at the structural and institutional reasons for his failed presidency,” rather than placing all the blame in Hamid Karzai’s lap.

Zambernardi’s view seems highly ill-informed, and is also tremendously cynical. He suggests that “[t]he current attempt to increase the number and the efficiency of the Afghan national security forces might certainly overcome the Western problem of casualty aversion [Edward Luttwak had a couple of great articles, in Foreign Affairs, outlining this issue (1995 and 1996)] in the long term, but it can solve it only when these forces will be fully reliable and efficient, which will take a few years.” It seems he is suggesting here, after eulogizing on the sadness of soldiers’ deaths, despite acknowledging that “[t]hey are an instrument to be used,” the lives of Afghan soldiers are worth less than the lives of Western soldiers.

It’s just this sort of Western-centric view that puts people off the idea of counterinsurgency, and the mission in Afghanistan and Iraq. For the Outsider, it’s important to remember that, while the deaths of soldiers is tragic, it is a function of their function, as it were. They have submitted to be used by the state as instruments of policy, and that means they implicitly agree to kill and be killed. (I should read The Soldier and the State.)

COIN is a valid strategy for Afghanistan. It will take time. It will take patience. It will take consistency of focus and consistency of mission. But a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, led initially by NATO, handing over to a well-trained and just Afghan military, is possible. A question asked by a listener to an NPR programme that I caught the other day, has inspired something in me, and will likely be the focus of many more blog posts here. I wrote a paraphrase of his question on an index card, so that I could use it focus my mind.

“What kind of government can we install that the Afghan people will support?”

Zambernardi does have a fair point when he dresses down Rupert Smith for ignoring the wider political implications of the need for “fewer heavy weapons and more light infantry.” This shift of focus requires a different relationship between civilians and the military. He continues that after the move away from heavy weapons and back toward more sophisticated technology, “the burden of war moves from advanced technology to foot soldiers.” However, soldiers are, and will remain instruments of the state, as Robert M. Gates recently pointed out. Gates’ argument is that “in the absence of a draft, for a growing number of Americans, service in the military, no matter how laudable, has become something for other people to do.”

Disconnectedness Defines Danger

It’s fair to say that this ‘disconnect‘ between the public at large and the military is damaging to the overall war effort. It’s something that I have established as a personal belief, and part of the raison d’être of this blog. It is vital that the public at home understand the purpose of the NATO presence in Afghanistan. I think that this is a large part of what is detracting from the mission and making the civilian leadership antsy about the situation. (I just ordered Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars from Amazon, and I’m excited to start reading it. Although Max Boot seems less than enamoured by him.)

There is little in Zambernardi’s article to teach us about counterinsurgency. It strikes me that he is simply trying to add his own scholarly weight into the mix, where the theory and, under the guiding hand of Classicist counterinsurgent David Petraeus, I think NATO forces have a great opportunity to create a more successful future.

(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.)


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