Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The New Yorker on COIN

I came across this New Yorker article by George Packer a few days ago. It is interesting, to say the least, and it touches on some of the salient points that have been presented both here as well as on other national security discussion blogs, like The Elephant Bar and Belmont Club.

The chief subject of the article, one David Kilcullen, has developed an interesting understanding of what the U.S. largely refers to now as the Long War:

Last year, in an influential article in the Journal of Strategic Studies, Kilcullen redefined the war on terror as a “global counterinsurgency.” The change in terminology has large implications. A terrorist is “a kook in a room,” Kilcullen told me, and beyond persuasion; an insurgent has a mass base whose support can be won or lost through politics. The notion of a “war on terror” has led the U.S. government to focus overwhelmingly on military responses. In a counterinsurgency, according to the classical doctrine, which was first laid out by the British general Sir Gerald Templar during the Malayan Emergency, armed force is only a quarter of the effort; political, economic, and informational operations are also required. A war on terror suggests an undifferentiated enemy. Kilcullen speaks of the need to “disaggregate” insurgencies: finding ways to address local grievances in Pakistan’s tribal areas or along the Thai-Malay border so that they aren’t mapped onto the ambitions of the global jihad. Kilcullen writes, “Just as the Containment strategy was central to the Cold War, likewise a Disaggregation strategy would provide a unifying strategic conception for the war—something that has been lacking to date.”

Kilcullen has an insightful take on U.S. COIN operations in Afghanistan, too:

Many American units [in Afghanistan], he said, are executing the new [Counterinsurgency] field manual’s tactics brilliantly. For example, before conducting operations in a given area, soldiers sit down over bread and tea with tribal leaders and find out what they need—Korans, cold-weather gear, a hydroelectric dynamo. In exchange for promises of local support, the Americans gather the supplies and then, within hours of the end of fighting, produce them, to show what can be gained from co√∂perating. But the Taliban seem to be waging a different war, driven entirely by information operations. “They’re essentially armed propaganda organizations,” Kilcullen said. “They switch between guerrilla activity and terrorist activity as they need to, in order to maintain the political momentum, and it’s all about an information operation that generates the perception of an unstoppable, growing insurgency.”

Read the whole article; it provides a great perspective on counterinsurgency, especially the non-kinetic aspects.

Post Script: I am also reading another counterinsurgency book, Modern Warfare, by Frenchman Roger Trinquier. It is an interesting and useful look at COIN operations, to say the least. Expect a post on it soon.

For those interested, here is a link to the complete Trinquier book online.


2164th said...

Bob, how do you account for the apparent disconnect between the strategies used in Iraq and in Afghanistan? Is it as simple as that in Afghanistan we fight the Taliban and in Iraq we are fighting "insurgents?" Is the definition of the enemy the distinction with a difference?

Bob W. said...


I honestly don't think that either the strategies or the level of success/lack thereof are vastly different.

The scope and scale vary significantly, with Afghanistan having a minuscule number of forces compared to OIF. But the West is no closer to achieving long term goals in Afghanistan than it is in Iraq.

The "central government" cannot effectively administer territory, there are porous borders, scant infrastructure, bleak economic conditions, and the insurgency shows no signs of abating.

The major difference between these two theaters is that the U.S. has allowed the media to develop and drive the narrative on Iraq. Iraq is the war WE chose to start on false assumptions, and now it is wracked with violence, a failure, et al. The media capitalizes on the problems in Iraq, while the setbacks in Afghanistan are buried beneath he fold, or ignored altogether.

In truth, other than the sheer numbers in body count, it is difficult to identify where the Afghanistan stability operation can be measured more positively than the endeavor in Iraq.

Again, this opinion ties in to my argument for a much stronger organic IO component to military units. It's always better to shape one's own narrative than to let someone do it for you.

FOOTNOTE: The fact that Afghanistan is a NATO operation, commanded now by a NATO general, helps somewhat to shape perceptions positively in the Western media.

Pangloss said...

I think that the difference between Iraq and Afghanistan is that Afghanistan was a CIA op, and Iraq was Infantry and Armor. After that, the US had NATO support in Afghanistan and support in Iraq has been shaky all along. Certainly the WMD rationale was always shaky, and the initial reluctance of the US forces to protect public safety and prevent lawlessness didn't help the case (yes, I know the ROE were the problem, but that doesn't change anything now).

Anyway, I have a different take, at second hand, on the same New Yorker article on Kilcullen in Part 2 of the Counterjihad Infowar.