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What If COIN Just Doesn't Work?

Ann Marlowe

I don’t mean, What if counterinsurgency (COIN) is too trendy? or What if we shouldn’t neglect preparing for conventional wars in our enthusiasm for COIN? I mean, what if counterinsurgency has never, ever, anywhere actually worked? What if our military has been chasing a chimera for almost four years — or more?

These thoughts are prompted by my last couple of trips to Afghanistan where, truth to tell, there doesn’t seem to be any increase in security when our troops do the right stuff (getting out among the people, lots of presence, lots of talking). We’ve got it down to a science now: the shuras, the projects, the provincial development plans, the embedded partners (is it my imagination or does the current military jargon for police mentors sound like a euphemism for a gay relationship?).

COIN makes sense intellectually, especially in the pellucid prose of David Galula, who wrote better in English than Roger Trinquier in French. Part of the reason it makes sense is that COIN is congruent with our culture’s bias toward a perspectival view of reality. As General McChrystal keeps saying, counterinsurgency is a matter of perception. If you feel that the government provides security, that’s reality. If you feel insecure, that’s reality. We think lots of stuff is a matter of perspective, from modern art and music to ethics. But when COIN succeeded, it may well have had nothing to do with the living among the people bit — or the talking bit.

Counterinsurgency as organized theory is only a few decades old, but it’s old enough that the Old Masters like Galula and Trinquier practiced it under vastly different conditions. In Algeria, the French were able to forcibly resettle villagers, build miles-long walls to close Algeria’s borders, and, of course, torture terrorists, or simply toss them out of planes if they wouldn’t talk. And that war didn’t end well. In Malaya, the British achieved success, but also with forcible resettlement of inconveniently located villagers and many other heavy-handed measures that would be completely beyond the pale today. Also, in both of these countries, the counterinsurgents essentially were the government, with long involvement on the ground.

Speaking of which, the Sri Lankan government seems to have succeeded against the Tamil Tigers, but if we could use their measures we would win in Afghanistan too. When the US government fought insurgents in the South after the Civil War, it declared martial law and shot enemy suspects on sight.

More and more, I suspect that it’s the brutality that works, not the COIN. It’s moving hundreds of thousands of people across a country, or shooting all the men in a village as a reprisal for terrorism, or taking hostages, or doing extra-judicial kidnappings. Of course, the brutality would work without the COIN, too. Brutality works. But that’s not who we are.

The “counterinsurgency” that seems to work in Afghanistan, in the short run, is bribing Pashtun villagers to stop their relatives from planting IEDs and suchlike. When you stop bribing them, they start planting IEDs again. It’s like when the Mafia charges you a “protection fee” or you get your store windows broken. This doesn’t qualify as a tactic, much less a strategy.

I don’t think there’s an example of a successful COIN campaign that was conducted in line with contemporary Western ethics. It’s a lovely theory, but it may be a waste of time, and of all those young men and women who get blown up by IEDs while getting out among the people.

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