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Paul Buchanan: Two Sides of the Afghan COIN

Two Sides of the Afghan COIN.

A Word From Afar – By Paul G. Buchanan

G. Buchanan – image by Jason DordayDismissal of General Stanley McChrystal as commander of US and International Security Assistance forces in Afghanistan for what amounted to insubordination goes beyond the issues of civil-military relations in a democracy. It also exposed deep divisions within the US national security command structure as to how to best prosecute the unconventional war now ongoing for nine years in Afghanistan. The divisions boil down to a contest between two versions of counter-insurgency warfare (COIN).

The first version, championed by General David Petreus (who accepted a demotion from US Central Command leader to assume McChrystal’s role in Afghanistan), is a US version of the traditional “hearts and minds” counter-insurgency campaigns in which a so-called “inkblot” or “seize-hold-and-build” strategy is used whereby conventional forces roughly divided equally into combat and civilian assistance units fan out into disputed territory to establish secure control of designated localities, then provide humanitarian and nation-building assistance to local populations while driving insurgents further away from areas previously under their control. As each “inkblot” secures its territory the conventional force expands its reach outwards in terms of combat and governance capability, eventually overlapping and saturating the countryside with its presence amid an increasingly supportive population. That denies the insurgent enemy the support and cover it needs to continue effective insurgent combat operations, which forces it to surrender or negotiate a peaceful settlement with US-backed authorities. The British campaign against Malaysian insurgents in the 1950s is considered to be the exemplar case from which Petreus and other Western commanders have drawn inspiration.

The inkblot strategy relies heavily on non-combat reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts, to include civilian nation-building assistance once effective security has been established in the original focal points. Because it is “population-centric,” it requires a “surge” in troops not for combat operations but in order to undertake the force protection, good governance development and civilian assistance projects vital to the “hearts and minds” component of the strategy. Special operations troops are used to eliminate or degrade enemy leadership targets, obtain intelligence and disrupt insurgent logistical flows as well as provide mentoring and training to local security (especially counter-insurgency) forces. The overall emphasis, however, is on building trust and making allies, not on large-scale kinetic operations.

This strategy was evident in Iraq, where Petreus trialed his approach in Sunni-controlled areas so as to deny al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) safe haven. Although this meant forming alliances with Baathists and other remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime as well as Sunni militants responsible for the killing of US personnel in places like Falluja and Ramadi, it did result in a pacification of the Sunni countryside, decimation of AQI (as a result of adroit exploitation of Iraqi Sunni resentment of foreign jihadists in their midst), and a subsequent re-balancing of post-Saddam Shiia-Sunni conflict in ways that mitigated Iranian influence in the Iraqi political process. Although the eventual outcome of this strategy is still uncertain and subject to reversal, it has worked well enough to allow for a timetable for gradual withdrawal of US troops to be drawn up in parallel with Iraqi central government assumption of primary security responsibility for the country.

When General McChrystal assumed command of the US military venture in Afghanistan, his mission was to translate Petreus’s approach into one that was appropriate for Afghan conditions in order to emulate the latter’s success. But the inkblot strategy relies on an assumption that local loyalties are divided and that political leadership is contestable, which means that a divide-and-conquer approach can be successfully used to foster and maintain local support for pro-US elites. This was evidently true in Iraq, but the situation is very different in Afghanistan. Whereas the Iraqis are divided along ethnic and religious lines with a strong secularist orientation amongst its educated classes, Afghans are predominantly Pashtun Sunnis with a strong Wahabbist ideological orientation, pre-modern levels of existence and a unifying contempt for all non-Muslims. While Shiia and non-Muslim minorities exist in the North and Western provinces, the South and Eastern provinces are Pashtun strongholds with extensive socio-cultural and economic ties to their brethren in Pakistan. Rather than Kabul, Kandahar is their historical capital and cultural centre of gravity, so what passes for a central government in the form of the Karzai regime has little support amongst the majority of the Pashtun population. And yet it is this population that is the primary target of the Petreus/McChrystal inkblot-style COIN strategy in Afghanistan (a strategy that, like in Iraq, is heavily influenced by the thought of retired Australian Army colonel and counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen).

To that end in 2009 McChrystal requested that 45000 extra US troops be dispatched to Afghanistan so that a “surge” operation could be conducted in Helmand province. Instead, President Obama authorised the deployment of 30,000 troops. Since the US military does not see a numerical request for troops as the beginning of a negotiation for something less, but rather as an absolute requirement, the denial of the full complement was seen by McChrystal and his advisors as a sign of presidential weakness in the face of a pressing reality. That reality was failure of the mission, and to that end several military field commanders working under McChrystal complained that they did not have enough troops to conduct the missions they were assigned to do. Hence, for the Central Command and US forces in Afghanistan, the reality of mission failure has begun to materialize in the unsuccessful efforts to remove the Taliban presence from Marja and the delaying of significant components of the much anticipated summer offensive in Helmand province. It is in that context in which McChrystal and his advisor’s ill-considered remarks must be viewed.

But there is more to the story. On the one hand, given his obvious intellect and the fact that he was surrounded by the crème de la crème of the US special operations crowd, the quoted remarks may well have been made fully cognizant of the fact that they were career-ending because the stakes were so high and the situation so desperate. They were therefore a call to attention not only by McChrystal but by his military superiors as well, with the price McChrystal paid for falling on his sword being that the President and his civilian security advisors are now acutely aware of what is hinging in the balance should the inkblot strategy not be supported to the fullest. That Petreus was named as McChrystal’s replacement suggests that the message was, at least for the moment, understood.

However, another factor is in the mix, and that is an alternative COIN strategy that is seen as a preferable option to the Afghan inkblot approach. This option, which has been formulated by the CIA in concert with elements of the military special operations community, uses the unwritten central tenet of the inkblot strategy to argue against its use. To wit, the fact that the majority of Afghan loyalties are not divided or contestable by foreign influences dooms the inkblot strategy to failure. Afghans may have tribal allegiances that divide them locally and allow warlords and chieftains to prosper, but this does not prevent them from unifying against occupiers (however well-intentioned these may believe themselves to be). Moreover, the Taliban are largely native-born and home-grown Pashtuns, with extensive co-ethnic links across the Pakistani border for both supply and support purposes, so they cannot be overrun, scattered and cornered the way AQI was. In this contrary COIN view, the inkblot success in Iraq cannot be replicated in Afghanistan because of the very different local conditions (both geographic as well as ethno-cultural).

Instead, what is need is an approach than focuses less on nation-building and population-centric “hearts and minds” and more on using high technology and special operations to deliver surgical blows against jihadists with more than local pretensions. This strategy, which is designed to prevent the use of Afghanistan and Pakistan as training and staging grounds for jihadist operations abroad, is less concerned about the nature of local government and more concerned with inhibiting the ability of Islamicist irregulars from organizing world-wide attacks from Central Asia and elsewhere such as the Horn of Africa. The means of doing so is to emphasize the use of special forces teams, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), high technology command, control, communications and intelligence (C3I) and stand-off weaponry against a discrete array of selected high value enemy targets in the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as in other geographic areas such as Yemen and the Sudan.

The upsurge in US drone strikes against Taliban and Al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan during the last 18 months must be understood in this light. Although the UN has called for the CIA to relinquish control of the drone program to the US military and warned against a “Playstation” approach to war by drone operators, the view within the alternative COIN community is that the combination of UAVs, C3I, smart weaponry and special forces allows for more precision and less collateral damage during kinetic operations than does the inkblot strategy. In contrast to the inkblot approach, this is a real shadow war.

Vice President Biden as well as the paramilitary wings of the CIA and its special operations interlocutors favour this alternative COIN strategy, which I shall call a “drones and bones” approach. The argument in its favour is that it allows for the reduction of the US military footprint in Afghanistan while maintaining the US ability to preemptively and unexpectedly strike around the world at enemies who pose a threat to US and Western interests. They see the approach as both a force multiplier and cost efficient, as well as a means of reducing US casualties and the risk of military over-extension at a time when other strategic threats loom on the horizon. Coupled with civilian reconstruction efforts in conflict zones and failed states in Central Asia and elsewhere, this strategy is seen as a means of maximizing both military and humanitarian opportunities in the war against Islamicist extremism. That, in turn, is seen as more politically palatable for the US public than a seemingly never-ending low intensity ground conflict in a far off place with no appreciable understanding that the US and its allies are there to help.

Proponents of this strategy argue that even if Afghanistan has strategic value in its mineral resources and transit routes for Central Asian gas pipelines towards the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, local political factors—with or without external influence—will best determine the how and when of economic development (with the belief that economic incentives will overcome any local resistance regardless of the nature of the Afghan government). They point to the fact that Chinese mining companies are already conducting large-scale operations without having offered even a minimal commitment to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and with minimal interference from the Taliban. Thus a population-centric, nation-building exercise such as that now being conducted by ISAF in parallel with the inkblot military campaign is futile and counter-productive because most Afghans resent it, do not want it, and will benefit from future economic development in accord with their own local preferences anyway.

As the Afghan conflict grinds on and coalition partners defect from ISAF, the rumblings of the “drones and bones” crowd have started to echo within the White House and National Security Council. Their alternative perspective is now shaping up as a contingency plan that would allow the US to draw down its force commitment to Afghanistan (numbering some 80,000 troops) while retaining the ability to strike at enemies whose threat to the US and its allies is more direct and immediate than some Pashtun irregulars with relatively primitive weapons and limited reach. In this view, the UN and other non-governmental organizations are welcome to continue their nation-building efforts in Afghanistan, but the only real threat to the global community posed by its ongoing failure as a state is in its potential for habouring jihadists. As such, the “drones and bones” COIN strategy is seen as the most effective means of countering that threat regardless of who runs the country or its level of development. Needless to say, this view runs directly counter to the inkblot approach favoured by Generals McChrystal and Petreus.

As things now stand, elements of both strategies are currently at play. Besides the drone strike efforts, the targeted assassination of US citizens who have declared deadly intent towards the US is part of the “drones and bones” strategy. In parallel, securing allied agreement to undertake ISAF military nation-building projects is part of the ongoing inkblot strategy underway in Afghanistan.

Arguments pro and con both sides of the Afghan COIN approach will continue for the foreseeable future, but it is now clear that the McChrystal debacle has brought to a head the divisions within the US security establishment over the best course of action given the intractability of the conflict so far. With a June-July 2011 withdrawal commencement date just a year away, the pressure is on General Petreus to achieve clear success with the refashioned Afghan inkblot strategy. In the event that he does not, then “drones and bones” will likely be its sequel and the Afghans will be left to their own nation-building devices whether or not the Taliban are part of that picture. For the US as well as its ISAF partners contemplating the nature of their future participation in the Afghan conflict, that is a prospect that requires serious consideration.


Paul G. Buchanan studies issues of strategic, comparative and international politics. His most recent article, “Lilliputian in Fluid Times: New Zealand Foreign Policy after the Cold War,” was published by Political Science Quarterly in its Summer 2010 issue (Vol.125, N.2). He also writes regularly for weblog collective.

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