“Counterinsurgency Operations: Strategy versus Tactics” Adam Silverman

4900_h22 Col. (ret) W. Patrick Lang, Dr. Will, Mr. Greenwald, Professor Cole, Abu Muqawama, and many others have been writing about the Obama Administration's new policies in Afghanistan, GEN McChrystal's orders intended to reduce the number of Afghan casualties and collateral damage, whether there should be a debate over current and future operations in Afghanistan, and whether or not the US should just pull out of Afghanistan.  Within these discussions runs a thread that is not always made explicit: should we be pursuing a Counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy in Afghanistan or using COIN as a tactic and why would one be better than the other.  The former would seem to lead to a full scale, open ended, nation building project, while the latter would allow for focused development, reconstruction, and reconciliation, done over a fixed time table, from the bottom up in Afghanistan.

In an 11 July post Col. Lang wrote that COIN has three basic elements:
"Political warfare designed to eliminate the symbolic causes of revolt,  economic development that provides incomes sufficiently large for the masses so that they are not inclined to risk the hazards of support for insurgents, and counter-guerrilla operations."
These three elements can be pursued either as a strategy or as tactics that are part of another strategy. Moreover, these elements, as well as the COIN doctrine, are themselves conceptually backstopped by the principles of working from the bottom up, empowering the lowest levels, and nonlethal operations create better results than lethal ones. 

In the case of Afghanistan the history, institutions, structures, and societal elements would all seem to point towards the efficacy of COIN as a tactic and not as a strategy.  In the Phase IV environment of stabilization and reconstruction (hold and build) COIN as a tactical approach has a great deal of utility.  If you can't or won't just pummel people and things, then COIN as a tactic can help to create an opportunity for success.  The whole point of COIN is to create the stability to horizontally tether the societal elements to each other through reconciliation.  If this is successful, then it is possible that the opportunity could be expanded to allow for the vertical reconciliation and tethering of the societal elements to the State, its structures and institutions.

The Afghan reality makes doing COIN as a strategy very, very difficult.  Specifically Afghanistan's history of little to no centralized government, the inability of a centralized government to effectively and positively penetrate into Afghan society, its socio-cultural makeup of over 130 societal elements that are ethno-linguistically and geographically differentiated, and the large rural to urban ratio, which also corresponds to literacy and educational rates.  Afghanistan is, perhaps, the best example of the limitations of the Westphalian conceptualization of the nation-state, where the political entity geographically conforms to a largely homogenous ethno-national, ethno-linguistic, and ethno-religious population.  This dynamic just does not exist in Afghanistan.  Trying to implement US strategic interests in Afghanistan by building a sovereign, democratic nation-state will require lots of money, manpower, and time.  The current US policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan, as laid out in the interagency white paper
clearly indicates that America's overarching interest is in addressing the current and potential extremist threats to Afghanistan and Pakistan.  GEN Jones, the current National Security Adviser, has specifically stated that the US strategy in Afghanistan will be the creation of more security, economic development, and better local governance and that America will not be operating in Afghanistan in ten years

Based on the National Security Advisor's remarks, COIN as a tactical approach would seem to make the most sense for success in Afghanistan.  Secure the population from the lowest level up, by disrupting the various anti-Afghan forces (warlords, the various Taliban groups, organized crime/drug networks) and providing them with economic and political opportunities, reconcile these societal elements to each other, and then tether them up to the district/regional level of government.  By limiting stabilization and reconstruction to the local to regional/district level it will be possible to disaggregate the various societal elements, anti-Afghan forces, and achieve positive results in a reasonable amount of time.  The focus needs to be on stability and quality of life for the Afghan population, not necessarily the creation of an Afghan nation state that is recognizable to those of us who grew up in a Westphalian state.

Adam L. Silverman, PhD was deployed to Iraq as the Field Social Scientist and Team Lead on Human Terrain Team Iraq 6 during 2008.  He was then the Strategic Communications Adviser and a Staff Social Scientist for the US Army's Human Terrain System.  The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Army Human Terrain System, the US Army Training and Doctrine Command, or the US Army.

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10 Responses to “Counterinsurgency Operations: Strategy versus Tactics” Adam Silverman

  1. jamzo says:

    Iraq gave us the “search for sadamms WMD”, “the surge”, and “the sons of iraq”
    afganistan has given us COIN
    a recent post on the columbia journalism review
    discusses the current role of Tom Ricks, author and former Washington Post Iraq War correspondent
    the article is part of the growing discussion of the US Afghanistan strategy and COIN in particular
    Cover Story — September / October 2009
    Too Close for Comfort?
    Tom Ricks and the military’s new philosophical embeds
    By Tara McKelvey
    “…. Over the past three years, Ricks has been an enthusiastic supporter of counterinsurgency and has engaged in robust discussions about its theoretical foundation and current tactics on his blog. He writes and researches in his office at the Center for a New American Security, which has become counterinsurgency central in Washington. The center is home to the top proponents of the doctrine, a group of one-time military dissidents who have become in many ways the core of the new military establishment. The organization was founded in 2007 and has close ties with the Obama administration, providing much of the underpinnings of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and South Asia.
    The center is headed up by John Nagl, the charismatic author of Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam, who has, for example, promoted the idea of a military advisory corps as a way to enhance the military’s ability to assist government leaders in other nations. President Obama has embraced Nagl’s proposal, explaining that an advisory corps “will enable us to better build up local allies’ capacities to take on mutual threats.” Another important figure at the center is CEO Nathaniel Fick, who wrote a book, One Bullet Away, and has taught classes in counterinsurgency in Kabul. Meanwhile, Army Captain Andrew Exum, whose blog, Abu Muqawama, has been described as the “go-to for the coin set,” has also become part of the organization. And David Kilcullen, the handsome, highly-quotable Australian who was an adviser to Petraeus, is a close friend of Nagl’s and also a member of the center’s board of advisers.
    President Obama has embraced the doctrine of counterinsurgency for Iraq and Afghanistan and has hired a number of people from the center, including one of its co-founders, Michèle Flournoy, the undersecretary of defense for policy, along with two former fellows, Shawn Brimley and Vikram Singh, Flournoy’s advisers. Kurt Campbell, who had been the think tank’s chief executive officer, is serving as assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the State Department. In addition, James Miller, a former senior vice president at the center, is principal deputy undersecretary for policy at the Defense Department, and Susan Rice, a former member of the center’s board of advisers, is U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
    As often happens in Washington, a number of prominent journalists have also become attached to the think tank, and in a relatively brief period of time: Robert Kaplan, who writes for The Atlantic, is a senior fellow. David Cloud, a former New York Times and Politico journalist; David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times; and Greg Jaffe, Ricks’s replacement at The Washington Post, all spent time with the center as writers-in-residence. Ricks fits easily into this world, giving interviews, working on policy papers, blogging, researching a new book on the history of American
    generalship, and attending events at which journalists and the new military establishment seamlessly mix, from panel discussions to softball games….”

  2. N. M. Salamon says:

    With respect to the author:
    1., The USa does not have the manpower for COIN
    2., The USA does not have the funds for COIN over the foreseen time line [10 yeasrts or so]
    3., Insistence on COIN will probably destroy NATO, as most NATO members have important domestic economic issues which demand the costs of the Afgan occupation to cease.
    4., Lengthy COIN in Afganistan will inevitably involvr more interference in Pakistan, possibly IRAN and possibly in the various STANS -the VIETNAM CREEP, which history clearly indicates to have VERY BAD EFFECT ON USA MORALE.
    5., THE USA CITIZENS will oppose any nonsense of 10+ year COIN operation while the USA economy is in VERY POOR CONDITION.
    ERGO SUM, get out of Afganistan!

  3. F B Ali says:

    These people who push COIN (whether as strategy or tactics), especially the military men, are a well-known type – the ‘table-top generals’. They excel in spinning strategies and tactics that work beautifully on a table-top model, where one can place and maneouvre the ‘enemy’ or other elements as one pleases. These beautiful schemes invariably break down in the field when they encounter live players with their own goals and interests.
    COIN works with people. The first question to ask is: what do the people of Afghanistan want most? The unequivocal answer is: peace, an end to the fighting. Not freedom from the Taliban, or good governance, or economic development, or anything else. After decades of war, death and destruction, all they want is for it to end. The best solution for them is for a negotiated end to the conflict. The next best is for one side to decisively defeat the other.
    They know that the foreign forces fighting in their country are not willing to do the first, and are incapable of the second. Everything else that these forces try merely prolongs the conflict, and they are against that. They also know that after a few years of fruitless campaigns these foreign armies will leave, as so many have done before them. But the Taliban will still be there. The Afghan people may tolerate the foreign soldiers where they have no choice, they will never support them.
    The other peoples the table-tops ignore are the American. Anyone who speaks of 10-year wars is smoking something potent. In a year, max two, they will pull the plug, and all these beautiful table-top schemes and these heady pipedreams will be flushed down the toilet.

  4. Bobo says:

    I believe we have reached a point that we should re-look at why the Russians decided they had enough with Afghanistan. Cause we do not want to get to that point as they seemed to be the Dog in the War of the Fleas.
    If you use COIN as a tactic versus a strategy then what is your strategy. To me the only reason we are there is to capture/kill Bin Laden plus reduce the ranks and effectiveness of Al Qaeda. Nothing more, nothing less. You think more??? Then why on earth would you/we want to prop up a government that has never been effective for its people and most likely never will in our lifetimes.
    I wish our military the greatest success in their endeavors but our politicians will quickly need an effective message to tell us why we are spending a King’s ransom on this massive dirt pile.

  5. Fred says:

    “if you have recommendations, make it in the context of the new strategy. This — we have learned one thing in six years, we — this is not just about troop strength,” Jones said on CBS.” Seems like the two take aways from General Jones. Obama has a strategy, and don’t bother asking for more troops.
    It is too bad America’s new-new think tank (Center for a New American Security) is not staffed by men like the brigadier.

  6. elaine says:

    You go with the COIN you have, not with the COIN you wish you had. Fill the skies with colored kites, paint & decorate some jeeps & fill the air with some of the Afghans great ethnic music–sitars, tablas, it’s beautiful & mesmerizing. Turn them on to some Sufi poetry. “If your enemy is quick to anger irritate him”, while reminding the civilians of all the romance of their culture that is missing due to the austerity of the bummer Taliban.

  7. My guess is despite labels the President knows that by Labor Day 2010 unless markers of success exist the DEM majorities in both Houses may well disappear. Why, the economy and war in my opinion. Neither does he control. Again a President may well be brought down by the ego and hubris of himself personally and his adminstration. Did the American people get change? Yes, but only in the players and not really in the substance. Expending the nations blood and treasure on DOD programs, functions, and activities and restoration of the FIRE sector [finance, insurance, and real estate] of the economy is not a way to bring American back. Can it be brought back to some standards of justice economically and diplomatically. Yes but it is a long uphill “slog”! And you cannot cruise on the uphill. A woefully incompentent Congress remains and will remain as long as corporate giving is treated as though it has the same rights as individuals. It is also interesting that the Judiciary after hammering Bush is now hammering Obama. Not sure what this means.

  8. R Whitman says:

    There is an old South Louisiana saying: ” When you are up to your ass in alligators, its hard to remember that your original goal was to drain the swamp”.
    According to Silverman, Afganistan is not a country in the modern sense. Do we need to make it one to deny it to Al-Quaida which was our original goal?

  9. optimax says:

    From Sun Tzu to Lao Tzu:
    There is an old saying:
    “It is better to become the passive
    in order to see what will happen.
    It is better to retreat a foot
    than to advance only an inch.”
    This is called
    being flexible while advancing,
    pushing back without using force,
    and destroying the enemy without engaging him.
    There is no greater disaster
    than underestimating your enemy.
    Underestimating your enemy
    means loosing your greatest assets.
    When equal forces meet in battle,
    victory will go to the one
    that enters with the greatest sorrow.

  10. Mark Stuart says:

    I followed this thread like any others with enthusiasm. And didn’t have anything to add.
    But today i stumbled upon this article and i thought it useful to reframe the debate insofar as it begs the question:
    Who’s Afraid of A Terrorist Haven?
    Any thoughts Sir?

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