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By Michael A. Cohen
We learn from history that we learn nothing from history. —George Bernard Shaw
Shortly after he assumed command of all U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal provided his soldiers with operational guidance for fighting insurgent Taliban forces. McChrystal’s words directly reflect the Pentagon’s new model of U.S. warfare and inform the philosophy behind the current U.S. military escalation in Afghanistan: “The ongoing insurgency must be met with a counterinsurgency campaign adapted to the unique conditions in each area that: protects the Afghan people, allowing them to choose a future they can be proud of; provides a secure environment allowing good government and economic development to undercut the causes and advocates of insurgency.”
According to McChrystal, the “Afghan people are at the center of our mission...in reality they are the mission.” These sentiments are reflective of what has become the new way of American war—population centric counter-insurgency (COIN). The focus on COIN doctrine was enshrined by Gen. David Petraeus and the 2006 publication of the Army and Marine counter-insurgency manual, FM 3-24, which calls for a military approach that seeks to convince the population that counter-insurgents, acting on behalf of a sovereign government, can be trusted and are worthy of popular support.
With its seemingly progressive and humanistic approach, FM 3-24, and counterinsurgency in general, offer a seductive ideal for the future of American war-fighting. But the veneration of COIN conceals a brutal reality. The history of counter-insurgency in the twentieth century is not a story of warm and fuzzy war, of benevolent soldiers providing essential government services to grateful natives, of armed social work, or of the gentleman soldier’s antidote to the Shermanesque notion of Total War. Instead, counter-insurgency is a repeated tale of coercion and violence directed largely against unarmed civilians. And this defines both those COIN efforts that have been successful—and those that have failed.
Yet counter-insurgency is often described today in misleading terms. According to Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War, COIN “embraces distinctly liberal, humanistic values like protecting civilians, cultural sensitivity, and rigid adherence to ethical standards and the law.” Others such as Max Boot, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power, have argued that the focus on counter-insurgency, in Afghanistan today, is in keeping with a grand U.S. military tradition: “Mc- Chrystal’s advice to embrace the population and be sparing in the use of firepower has been employed by successful counterinsurgents from the American Army in the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century.” Even those on the left are not immune to the seductions of this new mode of American warfare. Rachel Kleinfeld, director of the progressive–oriented Truman National Security Project, has lauded counter-insurgency for its focus on the “importance of legitimacy and privileging civilian life in order to gain hearts and minds,” a goal we are told that “progressives have been promoting for years.”
Do as the Romans Do
Though protecting the population, or cleaving them away from insurgents, has long defined COIN operations, the more coercive elements that have accompanied these efforts receive far less mention. For example, FM 3-24 approvingly cites the experiences of the British military in Malaya and Kenya, as well as the French in Algeria, as potential models for how to wage a population- centric counter-insurgency. But each of these conflicts—as well as U.S. COIN operations in the Philippines and Vietnam— were defined by significant levels of coercion and violence against civilians. Even in Iraq, which has been heralded as COIN’s shining contemporary success story, the “triumph” of counter-insurgency tactics that accompanied the 2007 surge of U.S. troops was matched with horrific levels of violence and population resettlement—and a higher number of civilian deaths due to American military actions.
In fact, none of the major counter-insurgent wars fought by the United States and other Western countries look much like the humanistic approach described by COIN advocates. Still, current operations in Afghanistan are predicated on this fundamental misreading and misunderstanding of COIN’s bloody past. Indeed, the tactics espoused by McChrystal and others are fundamentally counter to historical precedent—and the assumption they will succeed in Afghanistan is highly suspect.
Like all wars, counter-insurgency is, at its core, war—and the idea that it can be sanitized or made less violent is deeply and dangerously misleading. John Nagl, president of the Center for A New American Security (a locus of COIN thinking in Washington) and a co-author of FM 3-24, has argued that, “unless the counterinsurgent is willing to employ the so-called Roman method of unrestrained violence to suppress rebellion, the only way to defeat an insurgency is to gain the loyalty of the population, thereby depriving insurgents of the support base they require to destabilize a government.”
Indeed, the Roman Empire did develop an often-imitated counter-insurgency response—brutally destroying the cities of those who resisted Roman rule and forcing any surviving prisoners into slavery. In the fabled words of Tacitus, “They make a wasteland and call it peace.”
Throughout history, counter-insurgents have often adopted some variation of the Roman method—from Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea to the far more brutal tactics adopted by the Nazis in World War II and the Soviet Union against recalcitrant ethnic minorities. Far fewer have taken their cues from the American way of COIN as described in FM 3-24.
This is not to suggest that U.S. military leaders should take inspiration from Imperial Rome or Nazi Germany. But the continued evangelism of humanistic COIN threatens to convince policymakers that counterinsurgency can be done effectively, without coercion—or that there exists a simplistc choice between the Roman method and Mc- Chrystal’s predominant focus on population protection. And while it can be problematic to draw too narrow an historical lesson from past events, on this point the legacy of COIN is consistent.
The methods for defeating an insurgency have generally been defined less by an open hand than a clenched fist. The mistaken belief that counterinsurgencies can be waged humanely risks embroiling the United States in more conflicts and weakening national security. When it comes to COIN, the best course of action for the United States is most certainly less, not more.
COIN in the Philippines
The unsavory realities of subduing a rebellion were evident in America’s first overseas foray in counter-insurgency. While domestic military operations against the antebellum South and Native American tribes were intended to pacify rebellious populations— and with often harsh tactics—operations in the Philippines reflected the first concerted U.S. effort to conduct nation-building in a faraway land.
After the capture of the island archipelago from the Spanish in 1898, control of the Philippines had been ceded to the United States. But the Americans quickly ran headfirst into an emerging nationalist movement, which declared war against the United States in early 1899 and sought the removal of foreign troops. A two-tiered response to the emerging insurgency was adopted. First, there was a strong military commitment to what Filipino rebels would call the “politics of attraction.” Civic projects were established, schools and roads built, health care and proper sanitation provided, and efforts made to build an effective and legitimate Filipino government.
Initially, the U.S. military focused on restoring order and civic action, but due to the persistence of the insurgency—and the move to cruel and bloody guerrilla tactics— that balance would shift rather dramatically in the later periods of the conflict. This would prove decisive. A program of coercion and punitive measures was implemented, ranging from the destruction of crops and property to the separation of civilians into euphemistically described “protected zones” to extrajudicial punishment of Filipino prisoners and torture. This stepped-up military effort culminated in the Marine campaign at Samar, a spasm of violence that saw widespread atrocities committed against civilians.
While the American experience in the Philippines can be seen today as a civic success, the accomplishment relied in large part on the use of sustained coercion and violence. By some estimates, as many as 300,000 Filipino civilians died in the war. As the historian Brian Linn has written, “Benevolence and civic action were not enough to overcome Filipino resistance. Despite garrisoning hundreds of posts throughout the archipelago, soldiers found they could neither offer sufficient rewards to win over their opponents nor sufficient protection to save their friends from guerrilla retaliation...as Kipling predicted, the Philippine War proved to be a ‘savage war of peace.’”
The U.S. experience in the Philippines served as a resonant example of the sorts of counter-insurgency fights to come. Throughout much of the twentieth century, Western governments would find themselves facing the same challenge that confronted American colonial overseers in Philippines—how to balance the need for civil action against the demands of maintaining security and defeating insurgent forces. The balance would generally be defined more by the latter than the former— and brutal methods generally produced the greatest immediate success.
The British Experience
COIN advocates, in an effort to present modern, population-centric counter-insurgency as an enlightened way of war-fighting all too often gloss over this difficult history. Perhaps the best example of this historical inaccuracy is the tale of British counterinsurgency mission in Malaya, a colonial conflict waged against the Malayan National Liberation Army, a Communist insurgent group supported by the colony’s poor and disenfranchised ethnic Chinese population.
But a closer look at the British experience in Malaya suggests that its success, like the Philippines, was predicated on the use of coercion against the civilian population in concert with civil action and amnesty programs. British Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer, who is generally credited with turning around the counter-insurgency mission in Malaya after his arrival in the colony in 1952, adopted a more conciliatory and open-handed approach, arguing that the “answer [to the uprising] lies not in pouring more troops into the jungle, but in the hearts and minds of the people”—thus coining what has become the favorite expression of COIN advocates.
John Nagl cites Malaya as the quintessential example of how an army became a “learning organization” in responding to the complexities of dealing with an insurgent force. Indeed, one of the three books listed in the Acknowledgements of FM 3-24 is Robert Thompson’s Defeating Communist Insurgencies: The Lessons of Malaya and Vietnam. It’s not surprising that Thompson—one of the chief architects of the COIN mission in Malaya and a key advisor to Templer— offers a positive take on British counterinsurgency policy.
The veneration of Templer and Thompson, however, ignores some inconvenient facts. By the time Templer had arrived on the scene, the tide of the war against the insurgency had already begun to turn. This had far less to do with protecting the population than it did separating the ethnic Chinese population from the insurgents, by force. Historian Paul Dixon has offered a compelling list of indignities visited upon this group: mass arrests, the death penalty for carrying weapons, food control systems, burning down of the homes of Communist sympathizers, curfews and fines against communities as forms of collective punishment for individual offenses, detention without trial (used on more than 30,000 people), and deportations.
But perhaps no method was more successful than that put forward by Sir Harold Briggs, who preceded Templer as the British Army’s director of operations in Malaya. His strategy, which became known as the Briggs Plan, was a forced resettlement policy instituted in 1950 that moved more than half a million ethnic Chinese—a quarter of the Chinese people in Malaya—into so-called New Villages. While these settlements may have provided some of the first adequate lodging for the local population, they were maintained by force, and tough punishments were meted out to those who did not abide by British diktats.
Indeed, by instituting a policy of forced resettlement, years before the introduction of Templer’s “hearts and minds” strategy, the stage was already set for the British defeat of the insurgents. It is a view supported by Chin Peng, the head of the Malayan Communist party, who reported in post-war histories that when he heard about the appointment of Templer, “we were really feeling the heat of the New Villages.” For Peng, the turning point in the conflict came with the “increasing constraints” placed on the operations of the insurgents due to resettlement.
The British experience in Malaya was, to a large extent, replicated in Kenya during the Mau Mau rebellion against British colonial rule—but in even more brutal terms. The heart of the Mau Mau insurgency came from the country’s Kikuyu tribe, which had endured years of deprivation and land theft from British colonial overseers. But, as in Malaya, the ethnic homogeneity of the insurgency made it easier for the British to separate the population from the rebels. Once again, it was often savage brutality that proved decisive in meeting that goal.
According to David Anderson, author of Histories of the Hanged, an authoritative study of the Mau Mau rebellion, “The war against Mau Mau was fought not just by the military or by the police, but by the civil administration, in a pervasive campaign that sought to strip the rebels and their sympathizers of every possible human right, while at the same time maintaining the appearance of accountability, transparency, and justice.... When the fighting was at its worst, the Kikuyu districts of Kenya became a police state in the very fullest sense of the term.” Collective punishments were used, property was seized, civilians were resettled, torture became institutionalized, and the death penalty was widely expanded. In all, nearly 1,100 Kikuyu were hanged for infractions associated with the rebellion—less than a quarter for capital crimes.
There were also civil policies that employed gentler tactics, including land reform initiatives and the cultivation of a cadre of tribal loyalists known as the Kikuyu Home Guard. But in the end, it was the appropriately named Operation Anvil in May 1954 that truly broke the back of the insurgency. In sweeps across Nairobi and other major cities, tens of thousands of Kikuyu were detained and shipped to detention facilities. At its height, more than 70,000 Kikuyu were held in camps far worse than those to which the ethnic Chinese in Malaya were subjected. Most were held without trial and conditions in the camps were appalling with poor sanitation, meager provisions, and the frequent employment of violence as a disciplinary measure.
What both Kenya and Malaya have in common is not a “hearts and minds” approach to counter-insurgency or a focus on protecting the population at the expense of targeting the enemy—instead it was the application of overwhelming and callous force against the civilian population. In both cases, as in the Philippines, it was the use of coercion that proved decisive for the counter- insurgents. While noting the deplorable elements of each campaign, FM 3-24 does cite these two examples of the “traditional British method of fighting insurgency” as ones to be imitated by the U.S. military in its waging of counter-insurgency. Yet, what is lacking in FM 3-24 is the all-important recognition that coercion and violence were not only integral but decisive to British success in Malaya and Kenya.
The French in Algeria
The excesses perpetrated by counter-insurgents in Malaya, Kenya, and the Philippines were recreated on an even grander scale during the French engagement in Algeria and the American war in Vietnam. But in these latter examples, while coercive methods brought some short-term military success they ultimately were politically disastrous and hastened ignominious defeats for both countries.
One of the odd elements of the modern fetishizing of counter-insurgency is the attention focused on French military officer David Galula and the slender volume he wrote about his experiences in Algeria, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. It has become a bible for many of today’s COIN adherents and Galula has been hailed as one of the fathers of modern counterinsurgency doctrine. While noting that revolutionary wars are perhaps the “cruelest of all,” Galula contends that the “counterinsurgent is endowed with congenital strength; for him to adopt the insurgent’s warfare would be the same as for a giant to try to fit into a dwarf’s clothing.” Or, put another way, the counter-insurgent must avoid the urge to wallow in the same muck as the insurgent.
But during the height of the Algerian revolution, the French military institutionalized the systematic use of torture and summary execution of guerrillas. Widespread population resettlement policies and other punitive measures were used against civilians. According to Alistair Horne’s magisterial history of the conflict, at the height of the battle of Algiers, the seminal episode of the war, “between thirty and forty percent of the entire male population of the Casbah were arrested at some point” and more than a million villagers had been transferred to desperate “regroupment camps.” Indeed, the Algerian counter-insurgency was among the bloodiest and most violent in modern history, particularly since French brutality was matched—and in many cases surpassed—by the extraordinary carnage and barbarism of Algerian FLN rebels.
Though eventually the French were able to defeat the insurgency militarily, the use of such coercive methods created a public backlash in France that sapped the country’s political will to maintain an occupying force. The political fallout from such coercive and violent techniques rendered continued occupation unsustainable. It would eventually lead to the Evian Accords and Algerian independence in 1962 and contribute to a phenomenon of national soulsearching that continued for decades.
The Vietnam Experience
In Vietnam, the approach to counter-insurgency was never as violent and coercive as the tactics employed by French forces in Algeria, but COIN proponents’ take whitewashes the history of a vicious and ultimately lost conflict. Here again, the United States focused its energy on the goal of separating the insurgents from the population. And once again coercion would be a key feature of this effort. In the early stages of the war, the United States implemented the so-called strategic hamlet initiative, which forcibly relocated rural civilians into “secure” settings. This wreaked havoc on local communities and sowed deep-seated enmity towards American forces and the South Vietnamese government. Corruption, coercion, and the lack of security from the South Vietnamese military would ensure that these hamlets were anything but strategic or safe.
By late 1967, the U.S. military devised a new approach for defeating the insurgency in South Vietnam: the Civil Operations and Rural Development Support (CORDS) program, which more fully integrated U.S. civilian and military efforts in support of the South Vietnamese government. FM 3-24 hails the program for “protecting the South Vietnamese population and...undermining the communist insurgents’ influence and appeal.” Counter-insurgency advocates have argued that CORDS was a success and would have defeated the insurgency had the effort been maintained. As the argument goes, CORDS forced the North Vietnamese to abandon their support for the Vietcong insurgency and adopt a conventional military approach—and demonstrated the U.S. military’s core capability in conducting effective counter-insurgency operations. But, in fact, the “success” of the CORDS program coincided with a series of far more important strategic events, particularly the depletion of the Vietcong ranks through repeated attacks on U.S. and South Vietnamese forces (highlighted by the militarily disastrous Tet offensive of 1968).
Also missing from the CORDS story— and curiously omitted from FM 3-24—is its important corollary, the Phoenix Program. This euphemistically described “antiinfrastructure initiative” was aimed at eliminating top Vietcong leaders and operatives. While not an assassination program per se (since a key element included the capture and arrest of Vietcong political leaders), more than 26,000 Vietcong operatives were killed among the 80,000 or so “neutralized.” Though Phoenix had some limited success in undermining the Vietcong insurgency and pacifying rural communities, the cost in political terms was far greater.
A recent Rand Corporation study that defended the program as an effective counter-insurgency tool also highlights the enormous damage it did to larger U.S. interests:
Although assassination was never part of Phoenix policy, it was portrayed as such by opponents of the war, and this view enjoyed wide circulation in the press and among domestic American and international audiences. In the polarized and indeed overheated political environment of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Phoenix embodied for many on the political left the violent excesses of America as it rampaged across Southeast Asia. Phoenix therefore contributed to a lasting legacy of suspicion about U.S. power and global ambitions.
Rather than proving the efficacy of counter-insurgency, the war in Vietnam is an object lesson in how difficult it can be to maintain support for such a long-term war-fighting effort. The experiences of the French in Algeria and Americans in Vietnam should serve as an important reminder to the modern counter-insurgent of the limits of political and public will for such campaigns. The harsh measures taken in both theaters undermined domestic political support, as did the growing costs of fighting conflicts that seemed increasingly peripheral to the country’s national interests.
In Vietnam, efforts to “protect” the population ended up doing more harm than good. Military efforts to undermine the insurgency— in particular, the 1970 invasion of Cambodia—caused more civilian suffering and brought little strategic benefit. Moreover, the excesses of America’s war in Vietnam so traumatized the nation and its military that it changed the very focus of U.S. national security policy and for nearly two decades left American policymakers skittish and reluctant to employ military force.
It is frequently suggested that counterinsurgency in Vietnam and Algeria might have worked more successfully had it been implemented sooner or had political leaders the will to see the fight through. But ultimately in both places, the cause of the insurgent force was simply more appealing than anything being propagated by the counter-insurgents. Indeed, even the much admired Galula argues that without a “countercause” that appeals to the population, the effort is doomed to failure. Thus, short of military saturation of the entire country, the need to resort to coercive methods was not only necessary, but practically inevitable.
Beware the Surge Narrative
But perhaps nowhere is the divide between fact and fiction about counter-insurgency starker than in discussions about the U.S. war in Iraq. The dominant narrative about the Iraq war is that, after the American invasion in 2003, the U.S. Army forgot the lessons of counter-insurgency and bungled their way through a heavy-handed military occupation marked by the use of conventional military tactics ill-suited to fighting a guerilla war. The situation, as the story goes, turned around in 2007 after the adoption of population-centric, counter-insurgency techniques, which occurred in concert with a surge of U.S. troops into the country.
There is little question that civilian casualties in Iraq declined in the latter end of 2007 and into 2008. And U.S. military doctrine (at least nominally) did shift in the direction of outreach toward the Iraqi population. But, once again, the “success” of counter-insurgency techniques in Iraq and the stabilization of the country was twinned with horrific levels of violence. Iraq’s bloodletting began in earnest in February 2006 following the bombing of the Samarra Mosque in by Sunni Al-Qaeda-in-Iraq terrorists. The attack, on one of the holiest religious sites for Iraqi Shiites, unleashed a torrent of sectarian warfare. At its height, more than 3,000 Iraqi civilians were being killed each month and in a manner that was often deeply sadistic, including the use of electric drills and mutilation.
As the violence raged, an estimated one million Iraqis (mostly Sunni Arabs) fled the country to Jordan, Syria, and elsewhere. In Baghdad, the ethnic cleansing soon turned a once Sunni city into one dominated by Shiites. By the fall of 2007, the killing had created ethnic enclaves that were impervious to continued sectarian cleansing. The U.S. government’s own National Intelligence Estimate for Iraq in August 2007, couched in the standard antiseptic language, is nonetheless illuminating on this point:
The polarization of communities is most evident in Baghdad, where the [Shiite] are a clear majority in more than half of all neighborhoods and Sunni areas have become surrounded by predominately [Shiite] districts. Where population displacements have led to significant sectarian separation, conflict levels have diminished to some extent because warring communities find it more difficult to penetrate communal enclaves. [italics added]
Simply put, both sides ran out of political opponents to slaughter. This is a critical point: though the decline in violence coincided with the surge in U.S. troop levels and the application of new, counter-insurgency tactics put forth in FM 3-24, a significant portion of the drop in bloodshed happened organically and because of actions taken by Iraqis themselves.
In Iraq, the notable difference from the conflicts in the Philippines, Malaya, Algeria, or Kenya, is that it was not the counterinsurgents that perpetrated the worst violence, but rather insurgents and proxy militias fighting among themselves. While the United States may not have directly taken part in this ethnic cleansing, it had the indirect effect of furthering American interests and political objectives. Most problematically, however, COIN advocates have confused correlation with causality in Iraq. Since the frequency and intensity of violence abated just as the U.S. military was implementing a kinder, gentler, population-centric, COINfighting strategy, well, surely that means that the adoption of COIN tactics was decisive—or so the surge narrative goes. But this is a dangerous and false myth that obscures a far more complicated reality.
Indeed, it is not even possible to say that America’s hands were clean. COIN proponents have argued that one of the more important changes by the U.S. military when it implemented the surge in Iraq in 2007 was a focus limiting civilian casualties. Though that certainly was the intent, the facts suggest otherwise.
According to one measure, U.S. airstrikes killed nearly four times as many Iraqis in 2007 than in 2006. According to Iraq Body Count, a database that records the number of violent civilian casualties in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, the numbers actually increased, post-surge. Deaths of noncombatants involving U.S.-led Coalition military forces rose from between 544 and 623 in 2006 to between 868 and 1,326 in 2007; civilian deaths directly attributable to U.S. forces alone (i.e., not involving any other combatants) increased steeply from between 394 and 434 in 2006 to between 669 and 756 in 2007. Additionally, the surge was witness to a substantial increase in the number of Iraqis held in U.S. detention.
Between February and August 2007, the inmate population jumped 50 percent from 16,000 to 24,500. This is not to say that the surge of U.S. troops and the adoption of counter-insurgency tactics failed to have a positive impact on Iraqi stabilization or contributed to the decline in civilian deaths. They did. But these advances took advantage of changes already occurring on the ground—changes born out of extreme violence and coercion perpetrated against civilians. Without the violent civil war of 2006, the accompanying ethnic enclaving, and large-scale population resettlement, it is highly doubtful that the adoption of counter-insurgency techniques in 2007 would have turned the tide on their own.
Applying COIN in Afghanistan
The historical myopia of modern counterinsurgency doctrine brings with it potentially dangerous consequences. The first and most obvious is that the United States will choose to fight more of these types of wars out of the mistaken belief that they are more humane, and less deadly than conventional wars. The seductive allure of capturing “hearts and minds” can conceal from the public the true nature of counter-insurgency tactics. But there is another perverse and troubling possibility: that COIN advocates will actually integrate their own interpretation of the past into a belief that counterinsurgency can be fought and won with predominately carrots rather than sticks.
In fact, this is the approach being adopted today in Afghanistan, where U.S. military leaders have gone to great lengths to make clear that protecting civilian lives—rather than targeting the enemy— is the primary military mission. February’s coordinated attack on the city of Marjah in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province marked the high-water mark of this policy. In the run-up to the battle, the U.S. military gave up the element of surprise, practically broadcasting to the Taliban their intentions to take the town. The hope was that Taliban fighters would flee before the battle began, sparing the lives of civilians potentially caught in the crossfire. In the wake of the battle, the United States and NATO brought in both civil aid projects and what General McChrystal referred to as “government in a box.”
However, this approach is fundamentally incongruent with the timeline of U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan. The current U.S. mission is predicated on the goal of building up the confidence of the population, providing security, and expanding the legitimacy of the government in Kabul. But since that government lacks basic capacity, this is a goal that cannot be accomplished in the near-term. Yet the clock is ticking on America’s troop presence there—President Barack Obama has made clear that U.S. forces will begin coming home in June 2011. There seems to be a critical mismatch between strategy and tactics. A carrot-based approach that aims to build up the confidence of the Afghan people in the U.S. military, NATO, and their own government is the sort of mission that might have worked at the beginning of the war in Afghanistan—not eight years later.
In short, the Pentagon has chosen a mission in Afghanistan that minimizes its most obvious military advantage and accentuates practices for which it has neither the will, resources, nor core competency to implement successfully. Moreover, even by the tenets laid out in FM 3-24, Afghanistan is a poor choice for a counter-insurgency campaign. The country lacks a competent and respected host government, Afghanistan’s security services are inadequate and feared by the population, and the presence of a sanctuary for Taliban fighters across the border in Pakistan fundamentally undermines the ability of the counter-insurgency effort. Moreover, the United States faces an intractable enemy that, particularly in the Pashtun-dominated south, has the advantage of ethnic fealty—as well as the inclination to use coercive techniques of its own. Assassination of local leaders who resist its influence, night letters meant to sow fear in the minds of unarmed and defenseless civilians; each of these tactics is crucial to Taliban success. And, as Galula has pointed out, fear—not hope—is generally the great motivator for civilian populations that find themselves caught in the crossfire.
The Sri Lanka Model
In light of the daunting task in Afghanistan, one last example of COIN—from the very recent past—may offer some clarity. By 2006, the Sri Lankan military had been mired in a protracted 26-year war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a counter-insurgent force in the northern part of the country. Peace talks had broken down and the majority Sinhalese population was frustrated with the lack of progress. As a result, the government finally adopted the more decisive “Rajapaksa Model,” championed by (and named for) the country’s president. Its tenets were described in a widely read appraisal conducted by the Indian Defense Ministry: unwavering political will, disregard for international opinion distracting from the goal, no negotiations with the forces of terror, complete operational freedom for the security forces, absence of political intervention to divert focus away from complete defeat.
On the ground, that meant not only targeting Tamil civilians with coercive and punitive means, but also assassinating opposition journalists and the extrajudicial killing of civilians and combatants. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. Less than three years after the implementation of this policy, the remaining LTTE fighters had been pushed into a tiny corner of the island country, and were soundly and decisively defeated in battle. Not surprisingly, many prominent COIN advocates have been reluctant to draw conclusions about what Sri Lanka’s war on the LTTE tells us about the lessons of counter-insurgency. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Sri Lanka experience has the disadvantage of fitting poorly into current U.S. counter-insurgency doctrine.
So, would the United States be better served by adopting a Sri Lankan-style approach to waging the Afghanistan counterinsurgency? Not at all. Ignoring the obvious moral dimensions that weigh against such a course of action, the experiences in Algeria and Vietnam demonstrate that even the adoption of these methods is unlikely to bring success. And, the blowback can be far worse and longer lasting.
Counter-insurgents can win if their cause and political message have greater appeal or if they are willing to act as violently and coercively as the insurgent forces. Neither is true in Afghanistan today. The cause of the Taliban insurgents, particularly in the so-called Pashtun belt of southern Afghanistan, is as strong as any political tonic being sold by NATO forces or an increasingly illegitimate and corrupt central government in Kabul. In the Philippines, Malaya, Kenya, and to a limited extent Iraq, the success of counter-insurgencies was derived in large measure not just from the military weakness of the insurgent forces, but also their political weakness. Precisely the opposite was true in Algeria and Vietnam.
The notion that U.S. troops could foster a counter-cause that outweighs Pashtun solidarity is difficult to imagine. Money alone won’t do the trick. Of course, another possibility also exists—the entry of large numbers of U.S. and NATO troops, far more than the additional 30,000 soldiers that President Obama approved this past winter. But political constraints make such an additional outlay highly unlikely.
Indeed, as the Obama administration seeks to find a workable path in Afghanistan, there is a clear and unambiguous lesson to be derived from a proper reading of COIN history: it is a lot more difficult and violent than experts acknowledge. Counterinsurgency should focus on those locations (such as Afghanistan’s northern and western provinces) where the Pashtun, and in turn Taliban, influence is weaker. In the south and east, where the Taliban message is strongest, a more robust counter-terrorism strategy would be a better approach.
This does not mean withdrawal, but a regional prioritization and distribution of troops and resources to places where the most good can be done most quickly—and where the cause of the counter-insurgent is more likely to be embraced. Yet, to date, U.S. and NATO military efforts continue in areas (such as Marjah) that are not only the most volatile but least inclined to look favorably on the long-term occupation by foreigners that will be required if the current program of extending government legitimacy is to be properly administered.
In the end, nations inclined to embark on these campaigns in foreign lands would be wise to remember that even the best intentions of occupiers have generally bumped head-first into the shoals of bloody reality. Counterinsurgencies are as violent, coercive, destructive, and brutal as any other type of conflict. To ignore the fundamental elements of COIN operations—and to believe that an approach characterized by humanism and protection of civilians will succeed— is simply misguided.
The great American Civil War general, William Tecumseh Sherman, is best remembered for the phrase, “War is hell.” But perhaps the more resonant expression for those who would seek to humanize the most primal of human conflicts is one he wrote to the pitiable people of Atlanta before he burned their city to the ground in 1864: “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.”
Given the numerous impediments to conducting COIN in the modern era, it would be prudent to resist the uniquely American temptation to rewrite history. The scope and goals of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan should be narrowed, and the sooner the better.
Michael A. Cohen writes on politics and national security and was previously a senior research fellow at the New America
Foundation. He is a regular contributor to the blog www.democracyarsenal.org.