I really enjoy Abu Muqawama. Andrew Exum is a smart fellow, smart enough for CNAS to snatch him up and give him healthcare. But what the hell is this?
That said, I like to imagine that in two years running this blog I have learned a thing or two about population-centric counterinsurgency, and it occurs to me that if you are going to do population-centric counterinsurgency, then do population-centric counterinsurgency…
Afghanistan is a really big country — bigger than Iraq — and we are trying to protect more terrain with fewer troops. The old maxim that he who defends everything defends nothing seems to apply here. Are we, by putting troops in little far-flung outposts, setting them up for more Wanats? Should we instead be camped out in the big cities of Kabul, Kandahar and Lashkar Gah as Kilcullen suggests? Should not our first priority be to secure the Afghan people in order to reduce violence in the country and facilitate the upcoming national elections?
Umm, should not. The last people to assume that “the people” reside in the cities, and so there their operations should focus, were the Soviets. The Taliban run circles around the U.S. and ISAF precisely they control most of the countryside and not the cities. The problem isn’t Kabul, but the Tagab. The problem isn’t Kandahar but the hills above it. The problem isn’t Lashkar Gah, but Garmser. The problem isn’t Khowst, but Spera. The problem isn’t Herat, but Shindand. The problem… well, you get my point (and that list wasn’t meant to be comprehensive, merely illustrative, in case that weren’t obvious). If you want to do a population-centric COIN in Afghanistan, you do it in the countryside.
Why would Exum think that securing the cities was the one thing we needed to do?
I am relucant to say much about the environment in Afghanistan. I have fought there twice, it’s true, but in neither shortened tour did I really get a feel for the people or the culture. Also, unlike with Iraq, I don’t speak any of the relevant languages.
Oh right. Kilcullen suffers from the same weakness (though Kilcullen has made an effort to learn, it’s been limited mostly to DC experts and guided Army tours).
Where we should focus the counterinsurgency: places like the Tagab Valley (taken 02/29/09, click to enlarge).
But this kind of flabbergastery is perfectly emblematic of why knowing buzzwords like “population-centric counterinsurgency” is really worthless without that other COIN buzzword, “intimate knowledge.” You can’t make a strategy population-centric if you don’t know the population, COINdinistas.
Update: I should add that the reason Exum’s blog is so essential on stuff like Lebanon is precisely because he knows both counterinsurgency and the region. He has specialized in both (frankly, it is much harder, I think, to know a region), and thus offers tremendous insight that way. I’m afraid I don’t know of anyone who has similar knowledge for Afghanistan—there are plenty of COIN guys who aren’t too deep on Afghanistan (if I hear another hour-long conference call about tribes I will shoot myself), and there are plenty of country specialists who are simply awful in talking military stuff. Surely there are people with a similar depth of experience in both areas?
Update 2: Herschel Smith adds his own excellent thoughts to the discussion.