10 November 2010

COIN Toss, Pt. 2: Tails I Lose

If the army isn’t an appropriate tool for development, and COIN is largely development-esque, is reasonable to wonder why they’re not tasked with a more kinetic activity.  That is to say, why not let them do what they’re trained to, and shoot at bad people?  Seemingly, General Petraeus is beginning to wonder the same thing, as he is placing renewed emphasis on capture and kill methods.  An expansion of the successful and COIN-oriented FET (female engagement team) programme is complimented (contrasted?  difficult to say) with additional drone bombings.  In addition to allowing the ‘war fighter’ to fill a more apt role, this approach has the added benefit of acting like COIN on speed. 

Theoretically, it creates a space in which Afghans can begin to govern, rather than rule.  However, my more belligerent Guardsman translated the Petraeus doctrine into cutting off the head to kill the snake.  This technique has something of a spotty track record at best, raising the question of whether it has any potential here.

@laurenist recently presented a look at the decapitation school might be a successful answer to finally defeating Uganda’s LRA.  For all that movement’s extreme violence and destructive power, over the years it has distilled into a small, tightly knit cult of personality.  Moreover, even after capturing or killing Joseph Kony, it would require a massive effort in terms of both time and treasure to successfully pass his rag-tag band of child killers through DDR and return them to society as highly functioning individuals.  The Taliban (which is to say the Quetta Shira Taliban) is not the LRA.  Nor is HIG or the Haqqani network.  Each movement possesses a few charismatic centers such as Mullah Omar or Mawlaqi Jalaluddin Haqqani, but these personalities are hardly running the day-to-day operations.  What is colloquially referred to as the ‘Taliban’ is actually a diffuse collection of local operative and cells; it is loosely organized in what might be called a starfish scheme.  These autonomous cells have scattered leadership, and even their broadly similar goals vary widely in the particulars, allowing them to survive independent of any central authority.  It’s the Tea Party of insurgencies. 

Charles de Gaulle (I wasn’t kidding about the French) knew that a purely military approach would never work, grumbling that if you “kick them out through the door they will come back through the window.”  Both in broad terms and specific to Afghanistan, insurgents have a great flexibility; living up to Ho Chi Minh’s fish in sea metaphor is often their most critical survival technique.  Unfortunately, as the argument among the Guardsmen took a turn for the physical and they wrestled in the hall, my counter-insurgents remind me less fish in water than…sumo wrestlers.  Possibly a cruise liner.  The US military is huge, ungainly, and operates mostly on the surface.  Even if it can swim well enough, it is totally out of place.  In this instance, all those superior means and numbers just make them Fezzek versus the Man in Black.  They are not used to fighting such a small enemy after having trained to fight the a force comparable to themselves.

Forgive me – I went macro on you.  Returning to local tactics for the Guard unit, the decapitation technique becomes a bit more feasible.  And on small stage, cutting the head off the snake might actually have some efficacy.  Remember the hypothetical request for a kill shot?  It would essentially take out the insurgency’s middle management (the true heads being of course, in Pakistan).  Such bureaucratic erosion creates fissures in command the structure, engendering positive trends like younger, less trained insurgents, confusion in the ranks, and limited co-operation between groups as bonds of familiarity are destroyed.  All of which amounts to tactical progress.  Of course, these developments are like to be mirrored by an increase in child soldiers and encourage the targeting of civilians as ideals are lost and the war becomes progressively asymmetric.  Maybe Afghan insurgents have more in common with the LRA than I thought.  It, too, has become an almost totally de-legitimized movement, sooo…strategic progress?  Maybe? 

Overall, I think the French would support the more gung-ho Guardsmen and newly aggressive Petraeus doctrine.  The capture/kill option, per traditional COIN, should never really have been overlooked.  It simply has to be exercised with judiciousness and restraint.  You have to pick your targets. 

Moreover, it is tempting to operate on an accelerated time table when one’s partner is an uncertain and unreliable government whose corruption and incompetence undercut the COIN effort.  Oddly enough, both the linguists with whom I work and the Guardsmen with whom I socialize grouse that the government is the single biggest factor preventing COIN successes.  There is something of a devil’s bargain in the making: if you want the government to work, you should deal with corrupt officials already in place; if, however, you want a government you can trust, you have to purge the old and run the risk of another Hamas being elected.  It threatens to open up the Pandora ’s Box of peace or justice, which is perhaps better discussed at a later juncture.

Returning to the problem at hand, it is not really in doubt that the military is much better at kinetic than soft COIN.  Indeed, the purge of insurgent middle management is proceeding much more smoothly than is the winning of hearts and minds with the general population.  Unfortunately one cannot take precedence over the other.  Successful COIN requires a unity of strategy and tactics or, to put it another way, of development and security.  Building local government (strategy) happens by successfully training cops (tactic).  Winning hearts and minds (development) leads to better intelligence and fewer local attacks (security).  This neighborhood connection is even more important in Afghanistan, given the extent of the corruption and a long-held mistrust of central government.  The army can create all the space for governance it wants, but even the best offensive line in the world can’t cover for a Hamid Hasselbeck (did you think I’d forgotten about the football puns?  Never!)

If the history of COIN teaches us anything, it’s that insurgency are defeated through trial and error and patience.  Of course, solving problems with tolerance and serenity has never been our strong suit.  Certainly my Guardsmen fall in the Alexander the Great school when confronted with the Gordian Knot.  They’re running the Option, and our defensive tackle is antsy, going for the dive back every time.  Development, and COIN, for that matter, is subtle and loooong term.  Even with an all volunteer force, the American populace is short on patience and eager to avoid further land wars in Asia.  This is sometime the Afghans are acutely aware of.  As one of the linguists explained to me through a popular Pashto proverb, “you have all the watches, but we have the time”.   

Functionally, there are many things American soldiers don’t get about Afghans, making it harder to connect on a COIN level.  For example, most elders see no tension in bringing the Americans to tea one day and the local Taliban the next.  Even on a national level, Afghans can talk and fight at the same time, and the Afghan ability to disassociate frustrates NATO.  Moreover, the soldiers often view the reticent and paranoid population as apathetic.  Far from indifferent, my local co-workers often talk about the deep-seeded suspicion that the US and Coalition will eventually abandon Afghanistan, leaving them to deal with the unchecked insurgents themselves.  Would it be better, therefore, to should risk retribution now or in four years?  Even for the guys who work on base, it becomes an issue of survival; they are willing to take our money and supplies, but will do so with a level of detachment that almost suggests theft, but is more akin to squirrels gathering nuts. 

At the very least, most the soldiers do enjoy teas with their Afghan hosts.  It’s the one part of the culture for which they almost all seem to have an appreciation.  Even the most Afghan-loathing speaks highly of the village elders’ urgings to, in their words, sit, have some tea and candy and chill the eff down until you figure out how it really works around here. 

Throughout the Great COIN Debate, the majority of the Guardsmen either totally ignored the discussion or only contributed reluctantly when forced by their comrades.  Perhaps they just didn’t want to analyze their role here, or a drunken analysis of theory and tactics was the wrong format.  The side analysis of the football game and their relative betting successes seemed both normal (as they have similar conversations all the time) and a bit forced.  They were uncomfortable.  And who wouldn’t be, what with your team lead and security chief arguing about who on the team they would be willing to let die in order to save a potential Taliban member?