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If COIN is the Answer, What was the Question?

Ann Marlowe

As some form of peace talks between acid-thrower Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Karzai government begin in Kabul, it’s worth pausing a moment to think about the conceptual framework for the Afghan war. We haven’t done this enough.

The United States is engaged in counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, trying to bolster the allegiance of the population to their government (no matter how illegitimate) by giving them security and basic development aid. We station our troops among the people, in small outposts, and they engage in nation-building. Then, without popular support, the insurgency will wither away.

That’s the theory. And we’re fighting a pretty good war on these terms. But oddly enough, we don’t seem to be winning. Attending a lunchtime talk today by Col. Gian Gentile at NYU Wagner made me think about some of our unexamined assumptions in Afghanistan.

It’s hard not to be inspired by Gentile—one of a handful of truly original American thinkers about counterinsurgency today. Gentile, who holds a Ph.D. in history from Stanford and teaches at West Point, discussed one of his major themes: We still have no idea if there is a cause and effect relationship between our COIN strategy in Iraq and the decrease in violence between 2007 and today. Along with many others, Gentile thinks that paying off the sheiks, the Anbar Awakening, and sectarian separation in Baghdad may have been the explanation instead. In any case, he insisted that the Army needs to get out of its “conceptual straitjacket” with respect to COIN.

Consider the intuitively appealing idea that insurgency is correlated with unemployment and lack of hope among young men. After all, isn’t crime in the United States largely a phenomenon of under-educated, unemployable young men? According to this assumption, as Afghanistan grows more prosperous, we can expect the insurgency to disappear.

Another brilliant colonel in the American Army, Joe Felter, a career Special Forces officer who holds a Stanford doctorate in political science, co-authored a paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) with two academics last December. The paper, “Do Working Men Rebel? Insurgency And Unemployment In Iraq And The Philippines,” casts doubt on this assumption.

Here is the abstract:

Most aid spending by governments seeking to rebuild social and political order is based on an opportunity-cost theory of distracting potential recruits. The logic is that gainfully employed young men are less likely to participate in political violence, implying a positive correlation between unemployment and violence in places with active insurgencies. We test that prediction on insurgencies in Iraq and the Philippines, using survey data on unemployment and two newly- available measures of insurgency: (1) attacks against government and allied forces; and (2) violence that kills civilians. Contrary to the opportunity-cost theory, we find a robust negative correlation between unemployment and attacks against government and allied forces and no significant relationship between unemployment and the rate of insurgent attacks that kill civilians.

Of course, this doesn’t mean we should stop trying to create jobs and infrastructure in Afghanistan. The paper’s authors note that the opportunity cost model works when applied to crime rates both in the United States and other countries. Felter—who is now heading the COIN Advisory & Assistance Team (CAAT) in Kabul—and his co-authors are careful to say that not enough research has been done to see if the opportunity cost model works with respect to political violence. Also, unemployment may sometimes be an artifact of a successful COIN effort, where government control over movement is so tight that it shuts down commerce.

Joining both colonels’ insights—Gentile’s skepticism about cause-and-effect, and his advocacy of intellectual inquiry with respect to COIN, and Felter’s idea of testing theories that apply to domestic crime in the context of insurgency—we might want to look at the “broken window” theory with respect to insurgency.

In 1982, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling published an article in The Atlantic arguing that the perception that small infractions go unpunished leads to greater lawlessness. Fix the broken windows (and graffiti and trash), and crime falls. Experiments in Europe, detailed in a November 2008 Science article, corroborates the evidence most people give—in fact, people applied Wilson and Kelling’s theory to the fall of crime in New York while Rudy Giuliani was mayor of the city.

Is it possible that a variant of “broken windows” works in COIN? Maybe the perception of greater attention to security brings violence down, even if unemployment and poverty are high. Perhaps this is part of the explanation for the success of the surge in Iraq—almost, but not quite, a placebo effect.

I’ve always had the unpopular view that our Afghan counterinsurgency is short on sticks and long on carrots. “Broken windows” suggests that that this is the wrong approach. An atmosphere of lawlessness is a large piece of the problem. (The Karzai kleptocracy is another.) And negotiating with thugs like Hekmatyar may produce more violence, not less.

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