Is COIN Even Appropriate?

by Joshua Foust on 7/23/2009 · 8 comments

Donald Snow wonders if counterinsurgency is a good idea in Afghanistan:

With these limitations in mind, is Afghanistan ripe for COIN success? I think the manual argues implicitly that it is not, for three reasons. First, Afghanistan is too big for this kind of operation. The manual clearly states thateffective COIN requires one counterinsurgent for every 1,000 members of the population being protected. In Afghanistan, that means a COIN force of 660,000, a number so wildly in excess to what will ever be available to be disqualifying in and of itself. Second, the doctrine argues the heart of success is the political conversion of the population, but it fails to discuss who is going to do the converting. If it leaves this to U.S. counterinsurgents, the battle is lost. As the manual itself argues, an additional criterion for success is a good government the population can be loyal to. It is not at all clear Afghanistan has or is in any danger of acquiring such a government. Finally, the doctrine entreats that COIN is slow work and that its success will require considerable perseverance. A decade’s commitment or more is often suggested for Afghanistan: is there any danger the American public will support an Afghanistan war still going on in 2018 or 2019? I doubt it.

These are all very serious reasons to be skeptical of anyone talking about how the military leadership understands pop-centric COIN. Judging from what’s going on in Helmand right now, I’d wonder if we can even properly conceive of its actual scope, to say nothing of how feasible it actually is in Afghanistan.

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– 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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JohnnyB July 24, 2009 at 9:55 am

Joshua: I read your post every day. You do fantastic work.
Thank you for your efforts. Because of you and others that write what is not found in newspapers, I’ve started my own Blog because I can’t take the innocent lives being lost in the Mid-East and Central Asia. It’s my small way to “do something” I have used your posts. My blog is only a few days old.
Thanks again for your work.

M Shannon July 26, 2009 at 7:37 am

COIN is basically policing so you have to ask yourself if you had a gang infested neighborhood in Chicago where most people distrusted the police and were afraid of the gangsters would you:

a) change the cops every six months or a year,
b) employ cops who don’t speak English,
c) regularly kill innocent locals,
d) let some gangsters continue to shake down the locals,
e) have 90% of your cops stay in the station house 90% of the time,
f) have only one cop for every 30 square blocks.

Most US COIN doctrine is from French sources and they lost despite wanting to stay in Indo-China and Algeria whereas the US has signaled it want’s out of Afghanistan quickly. So you have a failed doctrine being used by a military particularly ill-suited to a long slow slog in a campaign that domestic pressures will push to quick resolution.

Sekundar July 26, 2009 at 7:48 am

Shouldn’t we actually try COIN first?

Michael July 26, 2009 at 5:45 pm

Non-rhetorical questions:
1. How much of Afghanistan actually needs pacifying?
2. Are there countries out there with a better shot at winning hearts and minds there than us?
3. I’ve seen wisecracks about Karzai’s government not having any power beyond the outskirts of Kabul. Are any of the regional or local governments better equipped to earn their people’s loyalty?

Jimmy Bryant July 26, 2009 at 5:49 pm

Wow, thanks for sharing, I have learned so much here on your site, thought I’d let you know your efforts are appreciated. Parts of the world like that are to remind us that we can never allow that to happen here.

AJK July 27, 2009 at 12:27 am


I can’t help you much on 1 or 3, but I find #2 interesting. My first thought every time I hear this question is “Duh, Turkey” because it’s a militaristic and predominantly Muslim country that’s a member of NATO. And it has 1,300 troops in Wardak. The only problem is, it would be tough politically for Erdogan (or even Basbug) to lead the occupation of a Muslim country. Even a Central Asian one that makes some folks think wistfully of a Pax Turania.

What I think would be an interesting idea (albeit one that I stole from Hugh Pope) is to have the Netherlands and Germany, with a decent number of Turks in their armed forces, take a more prominent role. That way people on the ground get to see “friendly faces” in a tortured, Robert Kaplan-esque way, but its still done under the aegis of a European country that can afford the political blowback.

There’s probably a more thought-out explanation of this I could do, but it’ll have to wait.

Michael August 1, 2009 at 8:31 pm

Another idea (albeit a deeply ironic idea) I just had: Saudi Arabia. They have lots of money, high unemployment, demonstrable cultural similarities with the Pashtun and a strong interest in seeing the Taliban (and their Al Qaeda brethren) lose. Not sure it’s the best idea I’ve ever had, but it’s counter-intuitive enough to be interesting, anyway . . .

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