The Great Myth: Counterinsurgency
Source Dave Anderson
Date 10/07/27/23:32

The Great Myth: Counterinsurgency
By Conn Hallinan
Foreign Policy in Focus

THERE ARE moments that define a war. Just such a one
occurred on June 21, when Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke
and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry
helicoptered into Marjah for a photo op with the locals. It
was to be a capstone event, the fruit of a four-month
counterinsurgency offensive by Marines, North Atlantic
Treaty Organization (NATO) allies, and the newly minted
Afghan National Army (ANA) to drive the Taliban out of the
area and bring in good government.

As the chopper swung around to land, the Taliban opened
fire, sending journalists scrambling for cover and Marines
into full combat mode. According to Matthew Green of the
Financial Times, "The crackle of gunfire lasted about 20
minutes and continued in the background as a state
department official gave a presentation to Mr. Holbrooke
about U.S. and U.K. [United Kingdom] efforts to boost local
government and promote agriculture in the town."

The U.S. officials were then bundled into armored cars and
whisked back to the helicopter. As the chopper took off, an
enormous explosion shook the town's bazaar.

When it was launched in March, the Marjah operation was
billed as a "turning point" in the Afghan War, an acid test
for the doctrine of counterinsurgency, or "COIN," a
carefully designed strategy to wrest a strategic area from
insurgent forces, in this case the Taliban, and win the
"hearts and minds" of the local people. In a sense Marjah
has indeed defined COIN, just not quite in the way its
advocates had hoped for.

The Missing Cornerstone

In his bible for counterinsurgency, Field Manual 3-24,
General David Petraeus argues, "The cornerstone of any COIN
effort is establishing security for the civilian populace."
As one village elder who attended the Holbrooke meeting -
incognito for fear of being recognized by the Taliban - told
Green, "There is no security in Marjah."

Nor in much of the rest of the country. The latest United
States assessment found only five out of 116 areas "secure,"
and in 89 areas the government was "non-existent,
dysfunctional or unproductive."

That the war in Afghanistan is a failure will hardly come as
news to most people. Our NATO allies are preparing to
abandon the endeavor - the Dutch, Canadians and Poles have
announced they are bailing - and the British, who have the
second largest contingent in Afghanistan, are clamoring for
peace talks. Opposition to the war in Britain is at 72

But there is a tendency to blame the growing debacle on
conditions peculiar to Afghanistan. There are certainly
things about that country that have stymied foreign
invaders: It is landlocked, filled with daunting terrain,
and populated by people who don't cotton to outsiders. But
it would be a serious error to attribute the current crisis
to Afghanistan's well-earned reputation as the "graveyard of

A Failing Doctrine

The problem is not Afghanistan, but the entire concept of
COIN, and the debate around it is hardly academic.
Counterinsurgency has seized the high ground in the Pentagon
and the halls of Washington, and there are other places in
the world where it is being deployed, from the jungles of
Columbia to the dry lands that border the Sahara. If the
COIN doctrine is not challenged, people in the United States
may well find themselves debating its merits in places like
Somalia, Yemen, or Mauritania.

"Counterinsurgency aims at reshaping a nation and its
society over the long haul," says military historian Frank
Chadwick, and emphasizes "infrastructure improvements,
ground-level security, and building a bond between the local
population and the security forces."

In theory, COIN sounds reasonable; in practice, it almost
always fails. Where it has succeeded - the Philippines,
Malaya, Bolivia, Sri Lanka, and the Boer War - the
conditions were very special: island nations cut off from
outside support (the Philippines and Sri Lanka),
insurgencies that failed to develop a following (Bolivia) or
were based in a minority ethnic community (Malaya, the Boer

COIN is always presented as politically neutral, a series of
tactics aimed at winning hearts and minds. But in fact, COIN
has always been part of a strategy of domination by a
nation(s) and/or socioeconomic class.

The supposed threat of communism and its companion, domino
theory, sent soldiers to countries from Grenada to Lebanon,
and turned the Vietnamese civil war into a Cold War
battleground. If we didn't stop the communists in Vietnam,
went the argument, eventually the Reds would storm the
beaches at San Diego.

Replace communism with terrorism, and today's rationales
sound much the same. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
described Afghanistan as "the fountainhead of terrorism."
And when asked to explain why Germany was sending troops to
Afghanistan, then- German Defense Minister Peter Strock
argued that Berlin's security would be "defended in the
Hindu Kush." British Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon
Brown routinely said that confronting "terrorism" in
Afghanistan would protect the home-front.

But, as counterterrorism expert Richard Barrett points out,
the Afghan Taliban have never been a threat to the West, and
the idea that fighting the Taliban would reduce the threat
of terrorism is "complete rubbish." In any case, the
al-Qaeda operatives who pulled off the attack on the World
Trade Center and the Pentagon got their training in Hamburg
and south Florida, not Tora Bora.

Hearts, Minds, and Strategic Interests

The United States has strategic interests in Central Asia
and the Middle East, and "terrorism" is a handy excuse to
inject military power into these two energy- rich regions of
the world. Whoever holds the energy high ground in the
coming decades will exert enormous influence on world

No, it is not all about oil and gas, but a lot of it is.

Winning "hearts and minds" is just a tactic aimed at
insuring our paramount interests and the interests of the
"friendly" governments that we fight for. Be nice to the
locals unless the locals decide that they don't much like
long-term occupation, don't trust their government, and
might have some ideas about how they should run their own

Then "hearts and minds" turns nasty. U.S. Special Operations
Forces carry out as many as five "kill and capture" raids a
day in Afghanistan, and have assassinated or jailed more
than 500 Afghans who are alleged insurgents in the past few
months. Thousands of others languish in prisons.

The core of COIN is coercion, whether it is carried out with
a gun or truckloads of money. If the majority of people
accept coercion - and the COIN supported government doesn't
highjack the trucks - then it may work.

Then again, maybe not. Tufts University recently researched
the impact of COIN aid and found little evidence that such
projects win locals over. According to Tufts professor
Andrew Wilder, "Many of the Afghans interviewed for our
study identified their corrupt and predatory government as
the most important cause of insecurity, and perceived
international aid security contracts as enriching a
kleptocratic elite."

This should hardly come as a surprise. Most regimes the
United States ends up supporting against insurgents are
composed of a narrow class of elites, who rule through
military power and political monopoly. Our backing of the El
Salvador and Guatemalan governments during the 1980s comes
to mind. Both were essentially death squads with national

The United States doesn't care if a government is
authoritarian and corrupt, or democratic - if it did, would
countries like Egypt and Honduras be recipients of U.S. aid,
and would we be cuddling up with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait?
The priority for the United States is whether the local
elites will serve Washington's interests by giving it bases,
resources, or commercial access.

Afghanistan is no different. The government of Hamid Karzai
is a kleptocracy with little support or presence outside

In many ways, COIN is the most destructive and self-
defeating strategy a country can employ, and its toxicity is
long-term. Take what didn't get reported in the recent
firing of former Afghan War commander General Stanley

COIN's Long History

McChrystal cut his COIN teeth running Special Operations
death squads in Iraq, similar to the Vietnam War's Operation
Phoenix, which killed upwards of 60,000 Viet Cong cadre and
eventually led to the Mai Lai massacre. The success of
Phoenix is best summed up by photos of desperate South
Vietnamese soldiers clinging to U.S. helicopter skids as the
Americans scrambled to get out before Saigon fell.

But COIN advocates read history selectively, and the loss in
Vietnam was soon blamed on backstabbing journalists and
pot-smoking hippies. The lessons were rewritten, the
memories expunged, and the disasters reinterpreted.

So COIN is back. And it is working no better than it did in
the 1960s. Take the counterterrorism portion of the

Over the past several years, the U.S. Central Intelligence
Agency has been carrying out a sort of long-distance Phoenix
program, using armed drones to assassinate insurgent leaders
in Pakistan. The program has purportedly snuffed out about
150 such "leaders." But it has also killed more than 1,000
civilians and inflamed not only the relatives of those
killed or wounded in the attacks, but Pakistanis in general.
According to an International Republican Institute poll, 80
percent of Pakistanis are now anti-American, and the killer
drones are a major reason.

"Hearts and minds" soldiers like Petraeus don't much like
the drone attacks, because they alienate Pakistan and dry up
intelligence sources in that country.

But McChrystal's Phoenix program of killing Taliban
"leaders" in Afghanistan is no better. As author and
reporter Anne Jones notes, "Assassinating the ideological
leaders, the true believers and organizers - those we call
the `bad Taliban' - actually leaves behind leaderless,
undisciplined gangs of armed rent-a- guns who are more
interested in living off the population we're supposed to
protect than being peeled off into abject Afghan poverty."

The "hearts and minds" crew have their own problems.
McChrystal and Petraeus have long stressed the
counterproductive effect of using airpower and artillery
against insurgents, because it inevitably produces civilian
casualties. But this means that the war is now between two
groups of infantry, one of which knows the terrain, speaks
the local language, and can turn from a fighter to a farmer
in a few minutes.

As the recent Rolling Stone article found, McChrystal was
unpopular because his troops felt he put them in harm's way.
Firefights that used to be ended quickly by airstrikes go on
for hours, and the Taliban are demonstrating that, given a
level playing field, they are skilled fighters.

In his recent testimony before Congress, Petraeus said he
would "bring all assets to bear" to ensure the safety of the
troops and "re-examine" his ban on air power. But if he
does, civilian casualties will rise, increasing local anger
and recruits for the Taliban.

The Choice

The war in Afghanistan is first about U.S. interests in
Central Asia. It is also about honing a military for future
irregular wars and projecting NATO as a worldwide alliance.
Once the United States endorsed Karzai's fraudulent election
late last year, the Afghans knew it wasn't about

One of the key COIN ingredients is a reliable local army,
but U.S. soldiers no longer trust the ANA because they
correctly suspect it is a conduit to the Taliban. "American
soldiers in Kandahar report that, for their own security,
they don't tell their ANA colleagues when and where they are
going on patrol," writes Jones. Somebody told those
insurgents that Holbrooke and Eikenberry were coming to

Afghanistan is ethnically divided, desperately poor, and
finishing its fourth decade of war. Morale among U.S. troops
is plummeting. A U.S. military intelligence officer told The
Washington Times, "We are a battle- hardened force but eight
years in Afghanistan has worn us down." As one staff
sergeant told Rolling Stone, "We're losing this f---ing

The sergeant is right, though the Afghans are the big
losers. But as bad as Afghanistan is, things will be
considerably worse if the U.S. draws the conclusion that
"special circumstances" in Afghanistan are to blame for
failure, not the nature of COIN itself.

There was a time when the old imperial powers and the United
States could wage war without having to bank their
home-fires. No longer. The United States has spent over $300
billion on the Afghan War, and is currently shelling out
about $7 billion a month. In the meantime, 31 states are
sliding toward insolvency, and 15 million people have lost
their jobs. As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told the
Huffington Post, "It just can't be that we have a domestic
agenda that is half the size of the defense budget."

Empires can choose to step back with a certain grace, as the
Dutch did in Southeast Asia. Or they can stubbornly hang on,
casting about for the right military formula that will keep
them on top. That fall is considerably harder.

The choice is ours.

Conn Hallinan is a Foreign Policy In Focus columnist. He
also writes the blog, Dispatches from the Edge.

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