09 November 2010

COIN Toss, Pt. 1: Heads you win

Sorry about the long delay, but work has been ridiculous.  Meltdowns at Corporate, snooping IG representatives in theatre…a mess.  All of which will be blogged about in due course, I’m sure.  In the meantime, however, here is the post I’ve been trying to get up for over a week.

I’ve been spending Sunday nights in the company of a National Guard unit lately, watching football into the wee hours of the morning.  These evenings usually include a mélange of welcome distraction, raunchy humor, and abiding shame (really Broncos?  2 and 6?!  Thank God it was a by week).  Last Sunday, however, was particularly engaging, as it devolved into a fierce discussion about the merits and shortcomings of the Army’s counterinsurgency doctrine.  I suppose the gridiron made as good a backdrop as any for a heated debate about whether job or mission should define the battlefield.  After all, TBI is rampant on both. 

The debate was kicked off (this post will be lousy with poor football puns – don’t say I didn’t warn you!) by the recounting of an event from a patrol earlier in the week.  Apparently, the fellas thought they saw a RPG team, prompting two Guardsmen (sniper and spotter) to try and track them.  They were making jokes about the incident, including speculating about the grisly possibly that the field they were running through was mined.  Though dark, the scenario they created was powerfully slapstick: running full throttle through a goat field, weapons drawn, blood pumping, enemy in sight, only to explode like Wile E. Coyote in a glorious hale of dust, livestock, and onomonopia.  In the midst of the raucous laughter at their own mortality, one of my fellow sports fans – the sniper, actually – casually remarked to another – his unit’s commander and professed bleeding heart – that he wasn’t sure the sergeant had what it would take to call for the kill shot.  What followed was one of the more urgent, if uninformed and slightly less than sober, dissections of counterinsurgency I’ve ever heard.

To give you a little background, traditional counterinsurgency, or COIN, theory applies both to governance and actual military tactics.  Broadly, it asserts that: (1) political action should take priority over purely military action, in an effort to prevent the insurgents gaining popular support; (2) there must be complete civil-military co-operation; (3) co-ordination of intelligence is paramount; (4) insurgents must be separated from the general population through the all-important winning of hearts and minds; (5) military force should be limited to support pacification; and (6) lasting political reform is necessary to prevent the recurrence of insurgency. 

The French set the historical bar for COIN theory and operations, with a little help from the Brits – snicker all you want at the wacky antics of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and Google, but those colonialist buggers wrote down everything.  The French recipe for COIN can be reduced to overwhelming force seasoned with unwavering determination.  Clichéd as it now sounds, the best defense against insurgency is a good offense; COIN operators have to be as determined as the rebels, prepared to endure all consequences, and possess the necessary military and political means to fight.  The central COIN objective is to reveal that insurgency is not a reasonable recourse for political grievance, but rather it is futile while its ends can be achieved through peaceful means.  If either the will or way is lacking, is becomes a weakness for insurgents to exploit.

General Petraeus tweaked the definition of COIN somewhat for the modern American soldier.  In the field counterinsurgency manual, he explains COIN primarily as the pursuit to establish a legitimate and effectual host-nation government.  Swell.  Unfortunately, the inherent subtleties of this point are lost among some soldiers; one point that came up time and again between my Guardsmen was whether or not a devoutly Muslim society could embrace democracy.  Not to nitpick as we watched the most popular sport in the US, but there is no reason Afghanistan has to be a representative democracy in the American sense of the term, socio-religious arguments aside (don’t we have enough on our plates at this point?).  Obviously, some forms of government wouldn’t be acceptable (or so I had thought…negotiations with the Taliban? I remain as appalled at this prospect as the Taliban do). 

Still and all, the Petraeus school of COIN is fairly traditional.   It just strongly emphasizes the separation of insurgent actors from mainstream population and facilitation of political reform, subjugating all other aspects to these central tenants.  In some respects, it brought the ‘softer side’ of COIN into vogue in the armed forces.

Most of the Guardsmen were familiar with the principles of COIN, and some of them even seemed to care about it.  The others either don’t care or understand the futility of it.  Functionally, the way the Afghan government is currently run, failure seems inevitable.  Also, the whole bit about civil military co-opeartion is only met superficially.  In this particular COIN effort, the civil and military elements are, for all intents and purposes, totally independent of one another.  NATO is the brawn (and too often the brains), where Karzai is…something.  Seriously, the Afghan government is at least ostensibly the civil component and does not play nicely with its supposed allies.  It seems as much to want to keep each the Coalition in check as the insurgents.  The enemy of my enemy might not be my enemy, but in this instance he’s apparently not my friend.

This lack of agreement on strategic level is a problem, speaking to an absence of clarity of mission and consensus what constitutes victory.  That said, for the most part the Guardsmen are more concerned with tactics.  They’re direct, action-oriented individuals, and they want a game plan.  At one point, their argument devolved a bit into far-fetched and morally overwrought hypotheticals.  One snapped at the strongest COIN proponent that, if he were to die in order to prevent the killing of one Afghan, it would have no substantive impact on hearts and minds and be a waste.  Indeed, he complained it seemed almost selfish for the other to thusly martyr himself.  Such a straight up and unambiguous exchange of one soldier’s life for one Afghan’s seems rather like a Hail Mary pass – highly unlikely to come to fruition.  His ire raised, the COIN warrior retorted that he would make the call to save his guys, but wouldn’t want them to put themselves in danger simply to save him – a decision he claimed as a sacrifice bunt.  Wait – wrong metaphor.  It’s just that the baseball season never seemed to end…

Back on topic: some of General Petraeus’ tactical suggestions are so obvious one wonders that they had to be written.  “Fight hard and with discipline” or “confront the culture of impunity” come to mind.  Of course, when the most, say, aggressive of the Guardsmen talks about chasing children with shot guns, maybe they do need to be written.  And said.  And maybe illustrated with stick figures.  Again and again and again. 

But other directives make COIN amount to the military’s answer to development.  Like most national-building theory, COIN calls for the protection of the population, provision of basic services, and promotion good governance.  The onus for COIN theoretically rests with the Afghans, with assistance from the US and NATO.  Moreover, in addition to saving every Afghan life at all costs, according to the COIN Guardsman, at least, the Petraeus doctrine also involves providing Afghans will all the goods and provisions they require.  The parallels to development practices are unmistakable and this cannot but help the war effort.  Case in point, another friend (not present for the football game) likes to recall how, after his unit assisted in the building of a well, an incredulous village elder asked what kind of invading army was this?  A different kind, he answered proudly. 

Devotees, however, have a tendency to take ‘soft’ COIN too far.  A member of the COIN-cult Afghan Hands project once tried to convince me that an Olympic training center should be built in Kabul, as a stirring sports story would help cement a national identity.  This is decidedly not Remember the Titans, and an Olympic medal will not be the glue that holds this country together.  Among my Guardsmen, the COIN optimism usually took the form of too much generosity.  The bleeding heart sergeant went so far as to speculate that his team should give every child they see candy, and they already bring several gallons of fuel to their ANP mentees whenever they work together. 

How could I possibly object to such noble intentions?  Partly because I’m hard-hearted, yes, but while this might be a great local COIN initiative, it’s a horrible long-term development strategy.  This charming, earnest soldier is helping to foster a dependent society: giving fish, where he should be teaching how.  The army is not USAID, it is never going to be, and it was never intended to be.