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If COIN Doesn't Work, Why Do We Keep Using It?

Ann Marlowe

Since early 2007, the US has been consciously practicing population-centric counterinsurgency (or COIN) in Afghanistan, trying to provide security or “white space” for the local population to separate from the insurgency and ally themselves with Afghanistan’s elected government. Best-case COIN in Afghanistan is armed social work—by foreign troops living among the people and aided by local security forces. General David Petraeus, the military’s biggest COIN advocate, just issued a set of guidelines for troops in Afghanistan that repeats the doctrine’s dogma: “live with the people,” “patrol on foot whenever possible,” etc.

There’s little evidence, however, that COIN is working — even though we have three times as many troops in Afghanistan as we did in 2008.

In fact, a recent report from the mainstream think tank CSIS suggests that the Afghan population has grown less and less willing to cooperate with counterinsurgents — even as we have supposedly refined our COIN tactics and increased the number of troops.

The report tracks the percentage of undetonated IEDs reported by locals from January 2004 to the present. Since May 2008 the percentage has hovered just under five percent whereas in 2005–06 — when the official story now has it that we were not doing effective COIN — the percentage was often over more than ten. In May of this year, it appears to be only one to two.

It’s the Coindinistas themselves who consider the percentage of IEDs turned in a useful measure. CNAS, the think tank at the epicenter of COIN, issued a report in June 2009 written by Andrew M. Exum, Nathaniel C. Fick, Ahmed A. Humayun, and David J. Kilcullen, which stated:

a rise in the proportion of IEDs being found and defused (especially when discovered thanks to tips from the local popula­tion) indicates that locals have a good working relationship with local military units — a sign of progress. Conversely, a drop in the proportion of IEDs found and cleared indicates the population is not passing on information to security forces, and is standing by while they are attacked — a sign of deteriorating security. (p. 27)

Obviously, metrics have to be looked at carefully. In some areas, Afghans have first planted and then reported the planting of IEDs in order to pocket reward money or give the appearance of cooperation. Yet in practice, it seems that more troops doing more COIN are correlated with . . . less local cooperation and less security. COIN is like a medicine that shows declining effectiveness the longer you take it and the higher doses you take it in.

Now, it could be that COIN works better with greater numbers of troops up to a tipping point at which it starts to work worse and generate xenophobia. It could also be that COIN doesn’t work at all. COIN has hardly ever worked on any insurgencies, and when it has, as in Sri Lanka recently, or in the Philippines under Magsaysay and Landsdale, it was with a measure of brutality completely unacceptable today among Western democracies. Both hypotheses should be tested before we go further with a losing set of tactics.

As Colonel Craig Collier, a former squadron commander in Iraq, recently wrote in Armed Forces Journal, “We don’t claim that our lethal missions were successful based on the number of patrols sent out or the number of rounds fired.”

Collier is the rare Pentagon denizen who is interested in measuring the effectiveness of our tactics. When it’s suggested that our practices in Afghanistan aren’t working, the generals — and too many from both parties in Congress — circle the wagons and claim that “we’ve only just begun to . . . “ — well, you can fill in the blanks: we’ve only just begun to have the right number of troops, or the right commander, or enough money. . . . Some even say it’s disloyal “not to give our tactics time to work.”

That graph of IED reporting suggests that our tactics aren’t ever going to work. And meanwhile, the US is combining the worst of our old-school realist moves — foisting a corrupt, inept thug who stole an election on a helpless country “because he’s our bastard” — with the worst of our new lack of cultural confidence — claiming that Afghans have a “different culture” where corruption doesn’t matter. Small wonder that Afghans are showing by their actions that they don’t want what we’re selling.

Our military on the ground know this well. A commander recently wrote me, “Everyone is running around scared shitless of Karzai. SO WHAT IF WE LOSE HIS SUPPORT! We hold the power cards, use them.”

We are losing the only advantage we have over our enemies: our well-known belief in democracy, justice, and the rule of law. The only way we can lose Afghanistan is by beating ourselves — and we may be doing just that.

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