Is COIN in Afghanistan Realistic? cont.
By Taylor Marvin
Counterinsurgency theorists acknowledge three pillars of counterinsurgency practice: security, politics and economics. For a counterinsurgency to succeed authorities must provide enough security to ensure a safe and stable civil environment, domestic politicians must cooperate to establish a fair, legitimate government that enfranchises the population and earns their trust and allegiance, and some form of economic growth must enable rising incomes and the stability of mass employment. All these pillars are interconnected — political consensus and economic development won’t arise in the absence of a stable and secure society. Similarly, its rare to be able to militarily defeat insurgents; insurgencies die when development and a fair political system disenfranchises their ideology. That’s why COIN is so difficult — if all these developments don’t occur concurrently nothing changes. This difficulty is a commonly known aspect of fighting counterinsurgencies. What’s less commonly acknowledged is how dangerous the nation building integral to COIN really is, a dismal reality America’s efforts in Afghanistan are now encountering.
General McCrystal’s tenure in Afghanistan was marked by an increased adherence to classic COIN doctrine that included rewriting US troops’ rules of engagement to place stricter controls on the use of force in an attempt to reduce civilian Afghan casualties. Most dramatically, McCrystal’s new rules of engagement restricted American soldier’s ability to call in airstrikes, which had been an invaluable tool in the rugged Afghan battlefield but a reoccurring cause of civilian deaths. Under the new rules airstrikes were only available if they wouldn’t harm civilian or damage Afghan homes or under extraordinary circumstances. This is a necessary aspect of COIN strategy: if NATO forces are going to win the hearts and minds of Afghans high-profile civilian deaths like the kind caused by errant bombs has to stop. However, restricting the use of soldiers’ most potent weapon directly puts soldiers at increased risk — its easy to find stories of American soldiers in danger of being overrun with air support available but prohibited from helping because of risk to Afghan lives or homes. Additionally, Afghanistan is a huge, rugged country and often aircraft support is the only type of help isolated soldiers are going to get. Of course there’s a real reason for these restrictions. Afghan lives are valuable, and whenever fighter jets start dropping bombs on villages inhabited by both civilians and Taliban fighters innocents are going to die — there’s simply no way around this problem. Extensive use of heavy air support can’t be a part of our Afghan strategy if the US is going to win. Civilian casualties are inseparable from airstrikes’ utility, and the civilian deaths heavy use of force causes are Afghan citizens’ greatest grievance against American forces and the Afghan government that hosts them. The central arena of counterinsurgency warfare is the allegiance of the civilian population and if the United States and its allies can’t manage to fight in Afghanistan without killing thousands of civilians the Taliban won’t be short of recruits. Of course these restrictions wouldn’t have any benefit if they didn’t significantly reduce civilian deaths. But after over a year of McCrystal’s command of the Afghan war his limits on airstrikes, combined with broader overall restrictions on the use of force, reduced both civilian casualties and the overall incidents of insurgent attacks. While McCrystal’s replacement General Petraeus has publicly considered easing the restrictions it’s likely that American soldiers will continue to face tough limits on the force they can use to defend themselves. This is inseparable from counterinsurgency; any superior power attempting to win a war of civilian allegiance must place an emphasis on reducing civilian deaths and the increased risks to soldiers’ lives it brings.
That’s the secret of counterinsurgency doctrine. Because COIN calls for close troop interactions with native populations, an emphasis on nation-building and limiting force to reduce civilian casualties it brings higher risks to soldiers than more traditional strategies. Pursuing a COIN strategy makes soldiers’ jobs more difficult and ultimately more dangerous- this is inescapable. This fact doesn’t automatically discredit counterinsurgency. COIN is ultimately the only strategy with any chance of fostering a stable Afghan society free of the Taliban; Vice President Biden’s preference for lower troop levels while emphasizing hunting al-Qaeda over nation-building abandons Afghanistan’s hope for a more peaceful future just as much as an immediate withdrawal. If we want to win in Afghanistan COIN is still the best strategy. But Americans should be more aware of its costs. Our war is Afghanistan is essentially a bet that we don’t know the odds on: a stable Afghanistan is the winning payoff and the increased sacrifice of COIN is the cost of playing. While COIN is the only strategy with a chance of winning in Afghanistan we should be honest about it — pursuing counterinsurgency and nation building will kill more American soldiers than simply hunting al-Qaeda. This cost is real, it’s unavoidable, and we should consider it when we’re deciding if we should make the bet at all.