The COIN Fallacy

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The COIN Fallacy

Counterinsurgency is increasingly being seen as a failure in Afghanistan. Was it flawed from the start?

Counterinsurgency, billed as the thinking soldier’s approach to modern warfare, is no longer looking quite so clever, as respected commentators argue that COIN has ceased to be the answer for Afghanistan, and for the U.S. military.

In a new policy brief, David Barno, Andrew Exum and Matthew Irvine of the Center for a New American Security – which has led the way on COIN-think these past few years – argue that NATO forces in Afghanistan now “must shift away from directly conducting counterinsurgency operations and toward a new mission of ‘security force assistance.’” Meanwhile, Washington Post writer David Ignatius suggested last week that COIN will fall victim to U.S. budget cuts, with the emphasis being placed on cheaper ways to fight wars. Ignatius quoted Defense Secretary Leon Panetta as observing that there just won’t be much call for counterinsurgency operations in future.

These are probably very good reasons for reorienting NATO and the U.S. military away from COIN – but not, it seems to me, the best or most obvious one. COIN should be abandoned because it’s time to accept that it simply hasn’t worked.

Counterinsurgency was always a paradoxical idea that involved the simultaneous waging of war and peace on the same country: you shoot the bad guys and build schools for the good guys. Afghanistan, though, was always resistant to these neat distinctions. The bad guys didn’t always seem so bad, and we were never quite sure if the good guys were really on our side.

Even so, politicians, military commanders and think tankers often maintained that the problem in Afghanistan wasn’t COIN itself, but rather the inadequacy of the doctrine’s implementation. In theory, yes, counterinsurgency could have delivered in Afghanistan – if there’d been a million more troops and a trillion more dollars. Or if the terrain hadn’t been so impenetrable, or the tribal politics so inscrutable. Or if Karzai hadn’t been Karzai, and Pakistan hadn’t been Pakistan…

COIN was wreathed in so much hype that for a long time there was a general, uncritical acceptance that it was the right and only way. But in the end, Afghanistan left counterinsurgency looking like intellectual naivete: a smart idea on paper that was utterly unworkable in real world conditions. Something best left in the classroom, or to be tried in other, easier wars.

Gen. David Petraeus, who practically wrote the book on COIN, tacitly accepted this when he relieved Gen. Stanley McChrystal as commander in Afghanistan in 2010 and proceeded to dump many of his predecessor’s tactics (which were COIN through and through). Under Petraeus a lot more bombs started falling out of planes: that’s a good way to reduce allied casualties, but not the way to run a counterinsurgency campaign. Petraeus also poured resources into night raids – maybe the right tactic for killing more Taliban, but one that made ordinary Afghans hate NATO.

COIN was sold as the smart way to win a difficult war. It wasn’t. A decade into the foreign intervention, the news from Afghanistan is grimmer than ever: 78 people killed within 24 hours this week in two separate attacks, one in Kabul, the other in Helmand – and with a nasty sectarian edge to the Kabul bombing that bodes extremely ill for the future. Bruised NATO allies are starting to rush for the exit, and the best-case scenario seems to be that Afghanistan’s long war will simply drag on, only fought by Afghans alone. A return, if you like, to the pre-1996 status quo.

We may then look back on COIN as having been a big part of a great failure.