Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 11:34 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 11:34 | SYDNEY

The COIN proxy war

This post is part of the Counterinsurgency debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

4 November 2009 13:46

This post is part of the Counterinsurgency debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Stephan Fruehling is a lecturer in the Strategic and Defence Studies Program, ANU.

Raoul Heinrichs' argument remains based on two fundamental but related misunderstandings, of counterinsurgency (COIN) and US strategy in Afghanistan.

Raoul's statement that 'population-centric COIN in Afghanistan appears to rest in large part on a sense of triumphalism over the perceived success of that approach in Iraq' misunderstands the nature of military doctrine. Doctrine is a set of ideas that can inform the development of a strategy – it is not a set of prescriptions, nor is it a template ready to be applied. 

The AirLandBattle manual did not contain GEN Schwarzkopf's famous left hook manoeuvre of the 1991 Gulf War, although it was clearly inspired by it. Similarly, US Army COIN manual FM 3-24 does not contain any COIN plans for Iraq or Afghanistan, but rather sets of ideas that can inform the development of a proper campaign plan.

This issue is usefully illustrated by Raoul's own point about US COIN operations during the 'surge' in Iraq. It is true that for a variety of reasons, some Sunni tribes started to have second thoughts in 2004 about the Faustian bargain they had entered into with al Qaeda in Iraq. But the point is that Coalition forces sat by and watched in 2005 as any such resistance was brutally squashed by al Qaeda forces. 

In contrast, in 2006, US Marines in Al Anbar began to apply COIN principles and dispersed among the population in the province, linking up with tribal resistance fighters, and thereby enabling the split that would soon develop into the Anbar Awakening. The US surge in 2007 extended a similar approach across the other Sunni areas, including in Baghdad. US Marines and US Army understood and applied COIN doctrine in order to develop a proper campaign plan. 

This leads us to Raoul's second misunderstanding, the way in which the experience from Iraq can be used to make arguments about Afghanistan. Insofar as he continues to suggest that the US seeks to replicate the Iraqi Awakening in Afghanistan, he is simply out of touch with the US campaign in that country. In Iraq, the central danger in 2006 was conflict along sectarian lines, fuelled both by al Qaeda in Iraq and Shiite militias, which was threatening to tear the nation apart. 

In contrast, despite the fact that violence in Afghanistan is concentrated in Pashtun areas, the importance of local factors is much greater, and anti-Government forces much more diverse than the popular 'Taliban' label suggests.

In Iraq, the US narrowly avoided civil war between different factions focused on Baghdad. In Afghanistan, the conflict is better characterised as several parallel but smaller rural insurgencies in different parts of the country; in particular in Kunar and Nuristan, the Greater Paktia area, and Helmand and Kandahar. Between these areas, motivations for support of the insurgency vary greatly; as does the strength of tribes and other traditional power structures (see the Lowy Institute's recent paper on tribal engagement in Greater Paktia). 

At the core of the emerging campaign plan for Afghanistan thus lies a much greater focus on local conditions than has been evident in ISAF operations so far – both in terms of reducing the factors fuelling the insurgency, in empowering whatever tribal structures can constrain Taliban influence, and in improving local governance from the bottom-up, working around rather than with corrupt central authorities. 

The purpose of McChrystal's Initial Assessment was to highlight elements on the basis of which the campaign plan would be developed – not to be the campaign plan itself, let alone to discuss 'the more salient question of why' COIN should be implemented, as Raoul would like to have it: that is a question for the White House to decide, which to this end had, after all, commissioned the Riedel review of early 2009.

Despite his criticism of US COIN doctrine, Raoul does not engage with the large and ongoing discussion about how the COIN campaign in Afghanistan should proceed in different parts of the country. Towards the end of his post, the reason becomes clear. Since even a successful COIN campaign 'will take many years, cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and will inevitably entail the loss of many more lives', he thinks it is not worth the 'benefit'.

While I would disagree about the chances of success, this is an opinion to which he is perfectly entitled — even if his assessment seems to disregard the links between events in Afghanistan and Pakistan's policy towards its own Pashtun areas. But whether the Afghan war is worthwhile is a decision for the US to make, and the reader is left to wonder about the purpose of Australian advice to the US that consists of pure opinion, without even the suggestion of an alternative strategy.

This may be annoying rather than worthy of comment if it did not have implications for the Australian strategic debate. On COIN – like on so many other issues – that debate is polarized into two extreme camps. On the one side, those who see the 'Australian digger' as a 'natural' COIN fighter, imbued with experience from Malaya to Timor, and hence above the reality of painful learning that his allies are going through in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

On the other side are those, like Raoul, who are opposed to the operation in Afghanistan, who see the war there as a distraction from what they perceive (or prefer) as the most important strategic issues for Australia and Asia, and who are led to make general swipes against COIN doctrine as a proxy for arguments about the war itself. 

Like so many extremes, both positions are impossible to support on the basis of the historical record, and like so many other extremes, they ultimately converge in their practical consequences: that the ADF, and the Australian strategic community at large, can avoid engaging with the difficult detail of real COIN operations and developing its own perspective on the strategic level of war. 

This should be of concern to all of us who expect that Australia may, one day, have to deal with a serious conflict in its own neighbourhood, and who rely on the ADF to develop and prosecute a self-reliant campaign. It is to be hoped, therefore, that the Lowy Institute's most recent Paper by Mark O'Neill will help re-build a sensible middle ground for Australia's engagement with counterinsurgency, and with the conduct of war more generally.

Photo by Flickr user lakerae, used under a Creative Commons license.