Non-COIN Afghanistan

by Joshua Foust on 4/30/2009 · 2 comments

One of my biggest complaints about all this talk in Afghanistan in the context of a counterinsurgency is that, despite much highfalutin’ rhetoric, the U.S. isn’t really conducting one. As one case in point (among dozens cataloged on this blog alone), I highly recommend John McHugh’s latest video.

So we see here a typical FOB in an insurgency-ridden area. The villagers feel trapped, exhibiting typical fence-sitting behavior. As with all other FOBs, the soldiers do not patrol at night, and the night is when the Taliban express power. It is an impasse, which in COIN is, technically, losing. And the soldiers seem to blame the villagers for this, instead of themselves for not taking advantage of their night vision goggles, GPS-guided air support, and the insurgents’ vitamin-starved eyesight to take back the night.

It is, in a major way, classic Maoist doctrine. The counterinsurgent forces have been forced by their own force protection to retreat into safe havens at night (and, depressingly often, mealtimes). This is the most reliable way to separate the counterinsurgents, and therefore the government, from the populace—which is the opposite of what an effective COIN strategy should do. It is compounded by the U.S. reaction from its bases, which injures or kills villagers—further pushing the population away from where it needs to be (that is, with the government and Coalition).

Such a discussion would lend itself to the obvious conclusion that the U.S. needs to get off its FOBs more and spend extended periods of time embedded in communities. Believe it or not, Vietnam provides a successful example in the form of a Combined Action Platoons, which paired platoons with “Popular Forces” to control wide tracts of the country. Think of them as much bigger versions of embedded elements (ETTs, PMTs, OMLTs).

But the downside to increased time outside the wire, increased time providing security to the population, and so on, is putting troops into harm’s way and accepting that a lot of them are going to die. Increasing troop casualties is an iffy proposition for an administration already dealing with a fairly large faction of the ruling party advocating abandonment. Politically, advocating “kill some troops now to save thousands later” is a complete non-starter, no matter how nobly it is dressed up. Which is why, absent an actual strategy to deal with Afghanistan—held up in contrast the current list of preferred outcomes masquerading as strategy—we need to seriously revise down our expectations of Obama’s War.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Old Blue April 30, 2009 at 11:48 pm

The thing is that the “safety” of ceding the night and the countryside is an illusion. The most effective that my time was in Afghanistan was the time during which I was outside the wire, and the quietest time the people of the Afghanya Valley had was when I and my Afghans were camped across from the mouth of the Ghayn. It should have been wickedly unsafe, but that was an illusion. The people of that valley were sorry to see us pull back to working out of Morales-Frazier.

Still, people had begun to tell us things. They had begun to hope enough that they would stick their necks out just a little.

It seems counterintuitive, but you make yourself more secure by getting out among those people. There will be those who begin to talk to you, and the citizens DO know a ton more about what is going on and who is involved in it than they will let on. Then there is the power/influence game as CPT Thompson so excellently describes. But you cannot play that game until you are there.

I don’t mind risking so that it gets easier for those who come later. For me that is not a non-starter, and any officer who says it is should be relieved and sent for a testicular transplant, because the set they are equipped with is broken. What bothers me is risking my butt for no gain, for status quo, for eventually running out of time. For losing.

Great post. Great point on the saying COIN vs doing COIN. Excellent point on the classic Maoist technique of the insurgency. I have argued with COL Gentile that this is a Maoist insurgency minus communist ideology. He doesn’t get that as he argues that our COIN doctrine is designed to work best against Maoist insurgencies.

I say, “exactly… isn’t it cool Right on time.” Gentile doesn’t see it.

Again, great post.

Smalls May 3, 2009 at 1:51 am

I’ve been under the impression that most policymakers and military officers would readily acknowledge COIN implementation hasn’t been seriously attempted yet anyhow. I’m not sure that I understand the criticism when most believe serious counterinsurgency hasn’t begun.

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