Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COIN Chameleon

Via the WSJ comes this very thought-provoking editorial by Ann Marlowe, about the perils of assuming that the precise set of COIN tactics which have all-but prevailed in Iraq can be transplanted to Afghanistan with any expectation of similar results. It's a lovely, tight little piece which I hope is widely read (or is based on widely-known ideas). For example:

Afghanistan's problems are not the same as Iraq's. Its people aren't recovering from a brutal, all-controlling tyranny, but from decades of chaos and centuries of bad government. Afghanistan, unlike Iraq, is largely illiterate and has a relatively undeveloped civil society. Afghan society still centers around the family and, for men, the mosque. Its society and traditions are still largely intact, in contrast to Iraq's fractured, urbanized and half-modernized population.
As I have previously written, Counterinsurgency (COIN) is a very subtle bit of business, the very essence of adaptability and flexibility. The core of it is a detailed understanding of the host nation's population dynamics and threat/asset profiles, guided by a warrior sociologist's study, analysis, intelligence (in both senses of the word), and real-time intuition.

Some might claim that the success of the COIN doctrine in Iraq was a too-good-to-be-true confluence of historical and socio-cultural factors which made Iraq atypically ripe for successful application of the Petraeus/Nagl/Odierno style of COIN operations. Alternately, one might argue that the demonstrable success of that style of operations in Iraq means that it can be successfully exported to other AOs with little change (as Obama and his people seem to be suggesting). Both of these analyses would be shallow and unhelpful.

Arguing that Iraq was uniquely well-suited for COIN ops is like arguing that the distance of the Earth from the Sun is uniquely well-suited for the emergence of life. The argument dissolves in a puff of tautology on even a casual examination: In both instances, the setting and the set emerge together, and artificially parsing them into cause and effect is an exercise in intellectual laziness. The particular type of COIN theory which emerged to handle the situation in Iraq looks as it did, beyond general parameters, because it was designed for Iraq. Before the Coalition arrived, Iraq existed, with all of its alliances and fractures and subtle loyalties and resentments. It was these dynamics which informed the design of the particular applications of COIN doctrine, just as that doctrine evolved together with the dynamics which it influenced. Similarly, although the distance from the Sun has remained more-or-less constant (though solar output has varied over time...), and formed the initial conditions for life to emerge (i.e., allowing liquid water to be stable on the surface), that life has also acted to regulate the conditions on the planet to maintain a homeostatic balance which continues to be favorable to life. To suggest that the success of the Surge was a matter of blind luck as to the conditions in Iraq is akin to arguing that the uncanny suitability of the Earth for organic life must be evidence of Intelligent Design.

Of course, as Marlowe's editorial proposes, it is equally foolish to assume that the particular constellation of force structures and tactical configurations which worked in Iraq could have 'scalable' results in Afghanistan. The primacy of the tribal (or even 'lower')-level social unit, coupled with the geographical and ethno-social isolation of widely-distributed sub-groups in almost extraterrestrially remote and rugged terrain militates against the kinds of urban-level operational philosophy which took root so relatively readily in post-Saddam Iraq. Further, the very active and destabilizing effects of the Pakistani military and intelligence machinery in abetting a relatively thriving Taliban/AQ presence, safe across the border within a beleaguered, nuclear-armed, twitchily sovereign nation defies any facile comparisons with even Iran. For Obama to continually carp on the idea that he can graft the relatively heavy force-footprint model of COIN operations which worked for Iraq onto Afghanistan smacks of the sort of shallow, opportunistic "me-too-ism" which so typifies his foreign policy style, particularly with regard to military matters.

The simple point is that a species of COIN strategy does need to be applied to Afghanistan...but it must arise out of a careful synthesis of multiple, far-flung threads of data and wisdom pertaining specifically to Afghanistan, where it will shift its shape into something more adapted to its surroundings. When it comes to COIN, this is a feature, not a bug:

Counterinsurgency is not one-size-fits-all. While there are best practices, they must be applied in a nuanced way. In poorly governed countries where insurgencies are likely to arise, the solution may vary from valley to valley.

It shouldn't be hard to see that adding men, helicopters or projects is not always the solution. But then, a would-be commander in chief who announces his prescription for Afghanistan before setting foot there has a lot to learn about America's top job.

Of course, for Obama to pontificate about what sorts of strategies and tactics should best be applied within Afghanistan is revelaed to be an even sillier exercise when one remembers that the head of CENTCOM, within whose Area of Responsibility (AoR) lies Afghanistan, is none other than David Petraeus himself. Talk about teaching your grandmother to suck eggs! For Obama to pose for the cameras as a man standing boldly ahead of the curve on the application of a policy he less-than-presciently opposed, and presume to dictate to one of that policy's chief authors is the very height of chutzpah.

The complexity of the tasks which await us in the Af-Pak theater is simply too daunting to entrust to strutting greenhorns and shallow thinkers.

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