22 October 2009

Taking COIN Too Far?

The ongoing debate about the US role in Afghanistan has dominated the media and academia recently - and for good reason. The decisions we make now in terms of combat power, funding/resourcing, and military strategy will have profound and lasting effects not just for the "AfPak" region, but for the US and our NATO allies as well.

Most of the proposed strategies fall in line with one of two overarching themes: 1) increase combat forces to enable a more effective COIN effort and build ANSF capability; or 2) draw down combat forces (either immediately or very soon) and shift our strategy to focus primarily on CT efforts against AQAM. So far, those in favor of the COIN approach appear to be greater in number and include GEN Petraeus, GEN McChrystal, ADM Mullen, Fred and Kim Kagan (from AEI), and a large number of academics from "pro-COIN" think tanks such as CNAS. They point to the recent success of the "surge" in Iraq and attribute much of that success to the adoption of a COIN-based approach across the theater.

Too Much COIN?

The debate reminded me of a Washington Post article from May 09 (recently re-sent by User81) cautioning against the over-application of the COIN concept. In "Countering the Military's Latest Fad," Celeste Ward argues that, "counterinsurgency [strategy] risks being taken too far, distracting us from other threats, challenges and strategic debates." She goes on to argue that much of the success in Iraq that was attributed almost solely to the surge was in fact due to a complicated set of inter-related conditions - particularly the formation of Awakening groups and the Jaysh al Mahdi (JAM) cease-fire ordered by Sadr. Although much of the article reads as a defense of GEN Chiarelli and crew (who led Iraq operations from 2005-2006), Ward does make some valid points about the potential risk in constantly defaulting to the new COIN paradigm as a way to fight. The conclusion of the article makes a strong case for ensuring that we truly consider whether COIN is the right option for Afghanistan:

"Washington's ultimate objectives in Afghanistan remain unclear. The United States has spent six years, more than 4,000 American lives, mass quantities of psychic and political energy, and untold billions on the effort in Iraq -- a project that has to date yielded little in a strategic sense. Iraq had an urban, educated population, infrastructure and bountiful natural resources, whereas Afghanistan has none of these. If "counterinsurgency" is merely a more palatable stand-in for "nation-building," that politically freighted but strategically more illuminating term, then our terminology may be obscuring the true extent of our predicament.

The U.S. military can be notoriously resistant to change, so the rapid ascent of counterinsurgency thinking is an impressive triumph of intellectual entrepreneurship in a normally parochial institution. But while counterinsurgency theory and doctrine are vital and have a role to play, their applicability is bounded. Too often in Washington the discovery of a hammer makes everything look like a nail. The question is not whether counterinsurgency works, but where, when and to what ends it is wise to commit U.S. power and resources."

While many of Ward's points are valid, she (like many other critics of COIN) fails to offer any sort of alternative solution. VP Biden has been the most vocal critic of an increase in combat power, arguing that rather than trying to protect the Afghan population from the Taliban, American forces should concentrate on strikes against Qaeda cells, primarily in Pakistan, using special forces, Predator missile attacks and other surgical tactics. US forces would accelerate training of Afghan forces and provide support as they took the lead against the Taliban. But the emphasis would shift to Pakistan. Biden has often said that the United States spends something like $30 in Afghanistan for every $1 in Pakistan, even though in his view the main threat to American national security interests is in Pakistan (see recent NY Times article). However, Biden has failed to articulate any sort of detailed plan for exactly what this strategy would look like at the operational and tactical levels.

Drawdown Options

Robert Pape is one of few scholars to offer specific recommendations, which he outlined is his recent NY Times op-ed ("To Beat the Taliban, Fight from Afar"). Pape argues for a version of "off-shore balancing," justifying a reduction in forces with the typical argument that increasing combat forces in an area will only serve to reinforce the occupation mentality among the populace and result in increased attacks. Similar arguments were made by opponents of the surge in Iraq, but ultimately don't hold water. While an increase in combat power will initially likely result in increased casualties, the increased "area security" provided by the troops will reduce violence in the long-run. This is the fundamental flaw in Pape's logic - an assumption that more troops will result in an increased perception that ISAF are "seen and mistrusted as an occupying power." Pape ignores one of the key tenet's of McChrystal's strategy, which is to change the operational culture of ISAF forces to focus primarily on securing the populace. If the increase in combat power is successfully paired with this change in mindset (and mission), we will begin to see increased support from the local populace for both ISAF and ultimately for the Afghan government.

Pape explains the details of his plan, which would "[rely] on over-the-horizon air, naval and rapidly deployable ground forces, combined with training and equipping local groups to oppose the Taliban." He highlights the success of US forces cooperating with Tajiks and Uzbeks (under the old Northern Alliance...which fell apart when tested in 2001-02) as a model and makes the assumption that we will be able to "lead Pashtun tribal militias in the southern and eastern areas to abandon their support for the Taliban and, if not switch to America’s side, to at least stay neutral." This argument, however, is just plain wrong and goes against years of recent history. The Pashtuns form the core of the Taliban (and much of AQ) and are not likely to support the Karzai government any time soon (unless it's able to show some legitimate progress in improving security, governance, and jobs at the local level).

Another version of the "CT-only" option has been recently advocated by Austin Long on ForeignPolicy.com. Long advocates a "shift to a 'small footprint' counter-terrorism mission" composed almost entirely of SOF and SF elements (with required logistics/medical support as well as robust enablers i.e. intel). While Long is the first to truly lay out the number (roughly 13,000), organization, and type of units required, his analysis falls short in explaining what intelligence we will use to drive these operations. Where will all of the analysts sitting in high-tech fusion centers get their data? He argues that SF teams embedded with local ANSF forces will provide much of the HUMINT data, but this is a huge assumption. More fundamentally, he also fails to understand that we can continue to target AQ/Taliban forces until the cows come home, but there is a growing pool of recruits disenfranchised not just by the presence of US/NATO forces, but more importantly by the inability of the Karzai government to represent and provide for them. In the words of GEN McChrystal, "You can kill Taliban forever, because they are not a finite number." This is where the other lines of operation within a comprehensive COIN campaign (governance, economy, etc.) come into play. Providing enduring area security to local Afghans is impossible when we land a helicopter, snatch/kill some bad guys, and then leave. The Taliban will come right in behind us and intimidate/convince the people that they are the only ones who can provide basic needs.

Although Pape, Long, and a few others have gone a long way towards explaining their rationale for a CT-focused drawdown, some critical questions and problems remain:

1) Will the current and future administrations (Republican and Democrat) be truly willing to conduct a global counter terror strategy that will undoubtedly kill women and children?

2) Will this strategy push our Tier 1 targets deep inland to mitigate our commando reach?

3) Does a CT strategy actually mean pulling out all ground forces from Afghanistan or will we just make the argument for advisors and non-combat troops to be aligned with host nation partners (Advisory Assistance Brigade concept)? Who will do this – conventional or SF units?

4) Does a CT strategy create more security issues in the long run if it is not a shaping operation in an overarching plan like it was in Iraq?

5) Can a CT strategy without significant ground forces properly feed the targeting cycle with actionable intel? Obviously, it has worked to a certain extent with Predator strikes in Pakistan, but all of us know how much more effective targeting is when battle space owners are involved.

COIN Surge Options

The other alternative, of course, is the option to send an increased number of troops to fully enable a COIN strategy. While numbers vary, we have heard calls for anywhere from 15,000 to 60,000 more Soldiers who would remain for some set timetable (likely years and not months like the surge in Iraq). Along with an increase in combat power, GEN McChrystal also emphasizes the importance of changing the way we do business on the ground. The two primary missions of ISAF units would shift to securing the local populace and training and building capacity of ANSF (eventually fielding an Army of 240,000 and police force of 160,000). Accompanying this change in strategy, McChrystal explains, must be a shift in "operational culture," much like the one ushered in by GEN Petraeus during the Iraq surge. In my opinion, although numbers are important, this is the key component of the entire plan. This will allow ISAF forces to go from being the occupier to the mediator and enabler of the Afgan government. Changes like this take time, but are necessary for success in such a complex operating environment.

When it comes to details of the plan, there are several proposals outlining how many troops are needed, where additional forces should be focused, and how they should be employed. One of the better (and easiest to read/understand) plans is the one laid out by Fred and Kim Kagan in a series of PowerPoint slides (available in PDF format here). They provide an in-depth analysis of current units in Afghanistan and determine that there are only roughly 89,200 "available counter-insurgents" including ANSF elements actually conducting COIN operations (once you factor in all of the logistical and support troops and account for ineffective ANSF units). Based on this and a thorough assessment of where we need to focus our efforts, they recommend approx. 40,000-45,000 additional US forces. They also discuss the pros/cons of the "CT-heavy" approach and offer several faults with this plan.

Bruce Riedel (a CIA veteran and chair of President Obama's recent AfPak review) and Michael O'Hanlon explain their expert opinions in favor of a COIN-focused surge in their USA Today op-ed from 24 Sep 09. In it, they offer a few key arguments against the CT-lite plan:

1) The fundamental reason that a counterterrorism-focused strategy fails is that it cannot generate good intelligence. Ultimately, our Afghan friends who might be inclined to help us with such information would be intimidated by insurgent and terrorist forces into silence — or killed if they cooperated — because we would lack the ability to protect them under a counterterrorism approach.

2) The second reason a counterterrorism-oriented strategy would fail is that, if we tried it, we would likely lose our ability to operate unmanned aircraft where the Taliban and al-Qaeda prefer to hide. Why? If we pulled out, the Afghan government would likely collapse. The secure bases near the mountains of the Afghan-Pakistan border, and thus our ability to operate aircraft from them, would be lost.

3) Third, we would likely lose our allies with this approach. A limited mission offers nothing to the Afghans, whose country is essentially abandoned to the Taliban, or to the Pakistanis, who would similarly see this as the first step toward cut and run. The NATO allies would also smell in a "reduced" mission the beginning of withdrawal; some if not most might try to beat us to the exit.

For all of it's positives, the COIN-surge approach also leaves many questions unanswered:

1) One of the reasons "The Surge" was successful is because the Iraqi populous was fed up with the violence. Is Afghanistan ready for peace after 30 years of on and off fighting?

2) A COIN strategy will have to be viewed as a double down for success. How will this affect the ARFORGEN plan to give our soldiers 1:2 dwell?

3) How long are our NATO partners in Afghanistan willing to let a COIN strategy play out?

Way Ahead?

In the end, we are left with a very difficult decision. As Andrew Exum explains in his excellent CNAS policy brief ("Afghanistan 2011: Three Scenarios"), all of the options available "involve risks and resources that would strain an already exhausted NATO alliance and Afghan people." An effective strategy will, “almost certainly require a further commitment of precious U.S. time and resources, to say nothing of the human cost. Ultimately, the president must select the option he considers least undesirable.”

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