What Happened to COIN in Afghanistan?

In 2010, population-centric counterinsurgency doctrine — in which as much emphasis is placed on swaying the population as on fighting the enemy — was supposedly the guiding concept for U.S. strategy in southern Afghanistan. The Kandahar offensive, a series of counterinsurgency operations in restive Taliban strongholds, was to be the centerpiece of this approach. NATO’s chief spokesman James Appathurai explained the strategy by saying, “It is about protecting the population, about changing the political culture and perception… Kandahar is, from the psychological and communications point of view, the heartland of the Taliban… The biggest problem in Afghanistan is not the Taliban, but the lack of strong governance and the delivery of services.” But a close look at the last year reveals that the population-centric approach may not have been implemented at all.

The idea of counterinsurgency (COIN) is to shift the emphasis away from the traditional metrics of warfare, such as body counts and battles won, to more intangible factors — influence over the population, responsible governance, and erosion of support for the insurgents. Ideally, COIN strategy wins the hearts and minds of the population so that the insurgents can be isolated and defeated.

But that’s not quite how things played out on the ground. First came claims that U.S. and Afghan troops were making arbitrary arrests. A number of locals complained to me that the security forces were rounding up people who had nothing to do with the insurgency. An October report in the Daily Telegraph related the following:

A loud speaker carried by a U.S. psychological operations team blasted out the message: “The people of [Zhari] will now be held responsible for the cowardly actions of the enemy.” A handful of women wailed as a relative was hauled off and a group of children cried as their neighbours’ door was kicked in.

After the district governor’s lecture to the captives, U.S. Army Captain [Nick] Stout added his own warning.

He said “I don’t care who you are, if there’s a grenade goes off and I see you around, I’m going to put a black bag over your head and you’re never going to see your family again.”

Then came stories in the Christian Science Monitor that troops were forcibly occupying civilian homes. Coalition forces were also bulldozing houses and razing orchards in order to unearth improvised explosive devices, and, in a peculiar effort to bring the population closer to the authorities, military officials directed the owners to get compensation from the local governor. In Arghandab, there were reports that U.S. forces threatened to raze entire villages that didn’t cooperate with them. And in perhaps the most grievous move of all, foreign troops used the services of Abdul Razzik, the border police commander notorious for human rights abuses, to help clear villages of Taliban forces. When Razzik had been tapped for such service in the past it sparked tribal tensions and outbursts of anger over his wantonly indiscriminate tactics among local populations, pushing many closer to the insurgency.

It should be no surprise why such tactics are used: They work, at least in the short term. After months of these attacks, the Taliban are significantly weakened; hundreds of their fighters have been captured, key field commanders have been killed, and many have fled to Pakistan to wait out the storm. Some prominent insurgent commanders are refusing to fight this winter, preferring to wait until the spring to start up operations again; this bucks a trend in recent years where fighting in the south was a year-round affair. There have been sharp disputes in Quetta, Pakistan, over the course of future strategy, all spawning from the intense military pressure the movement is facing on the ground.

But in the long run, locals say the U.S. approach could backfire. There is deep resentment of the foreign forces in many quarters. Efforts to build governance go sour when figures like Razzik are given a key role — the U.S. partnering with a notorious commander named Agha Shah was a recruitment tool for the Taliban in the early years after 2001, for instance. The shift in local attitudes that is so central to population-centric COIN is not likely to take place under such conditions.

When I asked military experts what they made of this apparent abandoning of COIN, they insisted that the Kandahar offensives were indeed population-centric — and that sometimes, harsh measures are necessary. But this break-eggs-to-make-an-omelet theory runs the risk of defining population-centric COIN so broadly and loosely that it becomes devoid of any value. In reality, it seems, the approach is simpler: Do whatever it takes to get results — for now.

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