Keith Boyea's Blog

Notes & Commentary on National Security, Current Affairs and Bourbon

What hath COIN wrought?

Thesis: The Afghan counterinsurgency effort has had only a questionable effect on US security, not achieved what it set out to achieve, has not made the average Afghan better off, is probably not worth its costs, and is a policy that wouldn’t be pursued again. 

It has been 25 months since Stanley McChrystal issued his counterinsurgency guidance for Afghanistan in June 2009.    President Obama, of course, doubled down on this strategy in December 2009 by authorizing a second troop surge of 30,000 soldiers.  I believe enough time has passed for us to assess the efficacy of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.    In my opinion, it has not been effective, and worse, it has probably been a net negative for the United States and Afghanistan.  I am going to proceed by asking and answering some of the questions about the effort.

Question 1: Is the United States safer now than in December 2009?

In a way, this question is unfair to COIN.  COIN advocates never claimed that Afghan COIN had much to do with American security. However, given that the whole point of the military is to protect the United States,* I think the question should be asked.

The argument for yes:  We’ve killed a boatload of really bad guys that would not hesitate to attack the United States if given the opportunity.  Additionally, Afghanistan is no longer a sanctuary for terrorists and we’ve developed intelligence networks in Afghanistan that allow us to target terrorists with speed and precision.

The argument for no:  Admittedly an anecdotal question, but do you feel safer?  I don’t.  Further, the number of civilians killed in efforts to kill actual bad guys might have made the threat to America greater, as recently arrested terrorist plotters have cited civilian casualties as a motivating factor.  New plots have been hatched from areas not in Afghanistan, specifically from Al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula headquartered in Yemen.

Answer: Unclear. We are probably safer from attacks originating in Afghanistan, but as a result we are more at risk from “home growners” motivated by an assortment of factors, including civilian casualties in Afghanistan.  Threats from other places around the world remain unchanged by the Afghan COIN effort. (With the exception of Pakistan, as some believe we have pushed part of the insurgency into Pakistan.)

Question 2: Did Afghan COIN achieve what it set out to achieve?

As I understand it, the Afghan COIN effort was undertaken to do the following:  Create a security situation in which a political reconciliation between the Taliban (and other insurgent groups) and the Afghan government could be reached.  It would achieve this by securing and protecting the population and then connecting the Afghan government to the people.  Additionally, an Afghan Army and Police force would be stood up to take responsibility for Afghan security in the future.

The argument for yes: According to the Pentagon, the Taliban’s momentum has been stopped and the gains made are real, but fragile and reversible.  The US has begun talks with the Taliban in order to reconcile the political situation.   The Afghan Army and Police forces grow larger and more capable by the day and they have begun to operate independently from NATO forces.

The argument for no: According to nearly everyone else, the gains are mostly illusory, and will not last.  The biggest gains have been in areas with the most US forces at the expense of the North (.pdf), and most of the development projects have done little to win loyalty for the Afghan central government.  More Afghans have died in the past two years than any other similar period meaning that the US has not effectively “protected the population.”  The Afghan Army still suffers from catastrophically high rates of desertion and they still have little capability in logistics, medicine, and communications.  The Police force is hopelessly corrupt and often further alienates an already pissed off population.  The cost of the Afghan Army exceeds Afghanistan’s GDP.  Rumors of an impending reconciliation deal are just that–they’ve been rumored for years.

Answer: No.  I do not believe that COIN has accomplished what it set out to accomplish.  In fact, I think it is an abject failure.  The Pentagon and COINdanista population is furiously spinning facts about both the initial ambition of the plan and the reality on the ground in Afghanistan.

Question 3: Has COIN made the average Afghan better off?

The argument for yes:  The evidence is kind of thin here.  Millions more Afghan children (especially girls) attend school.  The Afghan economy is growing.  There are construction cranes all over Kabul, and you can get both an iced latte and a decent steak while in country.  We’ve built an impressive number of roads and instituted cash for work programs.

The argument for no: According to the World Bank, 97% of the Afghan economy is based around the NATO/American military effort and other development aid.  The Wolesi Jirga has been in a political crisis for months and the President stole his election in 2009.  As mentioned above, more Afghan civilians have been killed since COIN started than in any other similar period.  Afghans are outraged by night raids.

Answer: Unclear. The effort has no doubt helped thousands of average Afghans.  Most of our soldiers really do want to help Afghans improve their lives.  On the other hand, the military has been something of a bull in a china shop–it often can’t get out of its own way.

Question 4: Have the benefits been worth the costs?

The argument for yes: “…sons of bitches flying airplanes into our buildings is really fucking expensive.”  In other words, any incremental decrease in the likelihood of a terrorist attack is worth the cost.

The argument for noI’ve written on this before, but the American lives lost and the number of wounded Americans alone is enough, for me, to oppose continued intervention in Afghanistan.

Answer: No.

Question 5: Knowing what we know now, if it were June & December 2009 again, would we make the same decisions?

The argument for yes: The counterinsurgency campaign has successfully set the stage for an eventual political deal between the various insurgent groups and the Afghan government.  By 2014, the Afghan Army and Police forces will be able to take ownership of the security situation and the United States will be able to divest itself.

The argument for no:  Many people made the case, in 2009, that COIN in Afghanistan wouldn’t work (me included).  Those arguments are still relevant.  A more rational policy, then and now, would be to draw down our numbers very quickly and focus on killing the Al-Qaeda operatives that are apparently still active.  The operation that killed Osama bin Laden is a perfect model for this course of action.

Answer: No. Based on what we’ve learned in the intervening two years, I believe the President would  adopt a less grandiose strategy that generally followed what was called the Biden plan or “counter-terrorism” at the time.  In fact, that’s pretty much what he’s doing, albeit two years too late.

Conclusion:  So it might have made us mildly safer from threats emanating from Afghanistan, but it has failed to live up to its promise. Average Afghans may or may not be better off and it it is super expensive in lives and money.  Are those the hallmarks of a successful policy?  In my mind, the United States is far worse off for having pursued COIN in Afghanistan.

I have made no secret about the fact I am a “COINtra.” I do not find it a useful strategy for the United States to pursue.  That said, I do not think even the hardest core of the hard-core COINdanistas would call what has happened in Afghanistan over the previous two years a “success.”  I find it curious that the COINdanistas have not seem to have done much soul-searching; i.e. attempting to understand what went wrong and why.  In future posts I will discuss why it is important for the COIN crowd to turn inwards and learn from the experience in Afghanistan.

* I recognize that an officer’s oath is to “support and defend the Constitution,” so it can be argued that the military’s purpose isn’t to defend America, it is to defend the Constitution.

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Written by keithboyea

July 13, 2011 at 1:53 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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  1. […] wheels of this post in motion was a post by Keith Boyea  (whose blog I recommend following) titled “What hath COIN wrought?”, his assessment of the effects latest population-security strategy is pretty dead-on, but what […]


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