The South Asia Channel

From COIN to chaos

By David P. Fidler

The White House, Congress, the military, and the State Department are gripped with the question of what strategy to pursue in Afghanistan. The confusion emanating from the policy debates is pervasive. After committing to a counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy in the spring, complete with a military surge and a "civilian uplift" to increase civilian capabilities, the Obama administration is showing signs of moving towards a strategy that is something less than a full COIN strategy and something more than a pure counterterrorism approach. What this strategy might entail is not yet clear, but what is clear is the danger for such an approach to collapse under the weight of political expedience piled on incoherent strategy and doctrine.

The fissure through which the confusion is now pouring is the Obama administration's spring commitment to a COIN strategy to reduce the threat posed by al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In other words, a COIN approach was selected to achieve a counterterrorism objective. The assumption bridging this divide was that defeating al Qaeda required defeating the Taliban, which required a COIN effort. That assumption apparently no longer holds, which exposes a dangerous moment for U.S. policy.

Under COIN doctrine, counterinsurgents must include, and coordinate application of, all elements of national power. There are no "half measures" in COIN, which is why President Obama addressed the "under-resourced" mission in Afghanistan by sending more military forces to improve security and an influx of civilian personnel to engage in stability operations, all coordinated under a new commander, Gen. McChrystal, known for his grasp of both COIN and counterterrorism. Gen. McChrystal's grim assessment of the campaign in Afghanistan and what is needed to turn it around are consistent with the principles of fighting COIN effectively.

But the torrent of bad news from Afghanistan, from the increasing insecurity, growing American and allied casualties, Taliban gains, and a legitimacy-wrecking election, have caused doubts about the COIN strategy to swell, and skeptics are urging adoption of a something more like a counterterrorism strategy. Unlike COIN, the U.S. government does not have "doctrine" on counterterrorism. Those favoring a counterterrorism-oriented strategy emphasize that it would require fewer combat forces, more operations by special forces, and use of high-tech weapons, such as missiles fired from drones. But these ideas represent means and tactics and do not amount to strategy or doctrine.

More dangerously, a shift in the direction of counterterrorism would undermine military and civilian efforts underway to secure the population, improve governance and the rule of law, rebuild public services, and empower Afghans to govern themselves. All these efforts have been grounded in COIN doctrine, especially the over-riding objective of achieving governance legitimacy. Re-orienting policy towards a counterterrorism-centric approach would mean the U.S. is not actually concerned about the Taliban ruling huge swaths of Afghanistan, which destroys prior and present claims that the U.S. has sacrificed blood and treasure to create something better than the return of Taliban rule.

In particular, a shift towards counterterrorism erodes the rationale for the "civilian uplift" that is deploying civilians to improve governance, the rule of law, economic development, agricultural production, education, women's rights, and the daily lives of Afghans. A counterterrorism-oriented approach supports neither extensive stability operations nor vigorous nation-building efforts, as the skeptics of the COIN strategy in Afghanistan have made clear. A shift away from a COIN strategy would undercut the rationale for the on-going training and deployment of hundreds of new civilian personnel for stability operations in Afghanistan.

Ironically, the U.S. adopted a COIN strategy in Iraq because the counterterrorism approach failed. Indeed, Afghanistan is not Iraq, and Iraq was not Vietnam. But the "less than COIN, more than counterterrorism" messages being sent by President Obama threaten to leave the U.S. with no clarity of strategy, doctrine, tactics, and objectives, which -- as we know from Vietnam, Iraq, and the "global war on terror" -- creates great peril for the U.S., its allies, and those at the mercy of our political machinations.

David P. Fidler teaches law at Indiana University, is director of the Center on American and Global Security, and is co-editor of India and Counterinsurgency: Lessons Learned (2009, with Sumit Ganguly).

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