Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Cups of Tea and COIN

Lots of blogging about Greg Mortenson's book, its flaws, and what it means for counter-insurgency.  I have not read the book myself or even feel as if I read the book but not myself.  What I will say is this--there is a lot of mis-understanding out there about COIN.  The effort to get to know the area (which sounds Cups of Tea-ish) is fundamental to engaging in a war against an enemy that seeks to blend in with the locals.  Having shuras and councils with the local elites makes sense, whether you buy the Tea or not, as these folks are the ones who have a clue about the area, know who the strangers are, and so on.

COIN is not about hearts and minds, despite the slogan.  It is about credibility and confidence--do the locals view the outsiders and the government has being reliable?  Can they count on them for security? for the delivery of government services?  for justice?  Or do they have to rely on the insurgents or themselves?  The surge in Iraq "worked" in that the locals found the extremists to be too violent and a greater threat.  Having more troops on the ground made it possible for the US to seem more reliable than the alternative.  People are betting with their lives, so it is not about love (hearts) or ideology (minds), but about fear and survival.  The insurgents do not need to win the love of the locals, nor do the counter-insurgents.  The battle is for control (a la Kalyvas).

This does involve indeed a fair amount of "kinetic" warfare--shooting, killing, and such.  COIN is not about handing out candy bars, but showing that you can stick around and thwart the other side, including killing them.  But it works best if one is discriminate in the use of force--only killing the insurgents.  Indiscriminate force is not only immoral but counter-productive.  This is where the locals are so crucial--helping to identify the insurgents.  Of course, the problem is that they have multiple motives (he stole my goat, that guy hit on my girlfriend, this dude cheated me out of my savings, whatever), so the outsiders/government need to be discerning so that they do not get played.

Anyhow, COIN, like all war, is politics by other means.  The politics amidst the COIN is more obvious than the politics amidst a tank campaign, but the choices made in either can have significant ramifications beyond the immediate battle.  The key thing about COIN is that there is no simple solution, no single way to handle everything.  It requires the ability to adapt and adapt faster than the other side.

The Cups of Tea stuff with schools and the soft side of power has its role to play, but reading that book, whether it is fatally flawed or not, really did not handicap the war effort.  Petraeus, a noted fan of the book, has made the campaign in Afghanistan more violent than his predecessor, including allowing some folks to destroy villages in order to save the country a la Vietnam.  See this excellent piece by Rajiv Chandrasekaran (who wrote a great book I did read, Imperial Life in an Emerald City about the Iraq war).  So, the folks who like to bang heads and are critical of COIN for being soft and squishy are, well, talking out of their asses.  I am not a COIN expert, but I can see that the campaign has been violent and will remain so.  I have my doubts about it working because it ultimately depends not so much on American/NATO reliability and credibility but that of the Afghanistan government.  Oops, indeed.

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