The Counterinsurgency Center’s COIN symposium was an impressive event and well worth the time and (ahem) suffering I had to go through in order to attend. They did quite a number of things right and before I get into the themes and points raised by the (very) impressive speakers I wanted to talk about some general observations about the event first.
The center representatives described their mission as needing to focus on relevancy to commanders, staffs and (I assume) policy makers. Specifically they’re charged with addressing the ‘so what’ and ‘how to’ questions of counterinsurgency. More specifically, they see three key areas that need attention:
The fusion of operations and intelligence at the ground level
Targeting (both lethal and non-lethal) to achieve desired objectives
The need for good and relevant assessments. Understanding the relevant value of information, how it changes and the struggle to tie it to a system that works.
There were about 100 attendees at the conference with a pretty even mix of military and civilian personnel (both contractors and what appeared to be a smattering of reps from other departments). While primarily American there were other nations represented, particularly Canadian, British and Australian. There were no representatives from Afghanistan which was disappointing but apparently logistics got in the way of that.
Most of the military attendees were field grade officers (between major and colonel) with a few scattered captains and senior enlisted (SFC and MSGs) thrown in.
On an interesting note I don’t recall hearing the terms ‘War on terror’, ‘long war’ or anything similar over the three days. The conflict in Afghanistan was (rightly, I think) divorced from some greater project.
While, current U.S. policy states that we’ll begin withdrawing our forces in 2011 there was a universal recognition that any real effort to apply COIN in Afghanistan would take a very long time. While the subject wasn’t addressed (except for one question at the final Q&A roundtable) my impression was that all of the speakers (British, Canadian and U.S.) were operating under the assumption that forces would be in place well beyond 2011. I heard no discussion about how to conduct any sort of hand off to the Afghans within 18 months, alterations to COIN theory or doctrine or trains of thought about alternate ways militaries could support/conduct COIN without significant numbers of forces on the ground. I would interpret that to mean that the military has been given the word (explicitly or implicitly) that that 2011 deadline is NOT set in stone. I would, in fact, go further and predict that barring some unforeseen change in the operating environment we will almost definitely have a significant presence in Afghanistan for some time.
There was almost no discussion on the role of narcotics (or criminality) in the insurgency in Afghanistan or the role it may play in insurgencies more generally. There did seem to be a minor point of discussion about whether the insurgency was primarily driven by economic or religious factors. The discussion didn’t get fleshed out at all so I don’t want to misrepresent anyone’s position but I’d argue for a synthesis of the two for two reasons:
The Taliban are and have been religiously motivated. While in power they cracked down on criminality and narcotics production which is one of the reasons they maintain some support among segments of the population. They provided order. There are also clearly profit motivated elements who are opposed to the coalition because of the threat to their bottom line. In normal times, these two groups may be in conflict with each other but the presence and actions of the coalition have pushed them together.
I suspect that there’s some evidence for politically (and maybe religiously) motivated extremist groups to gravitate towards criminality over time. Maybe this occurs when the original leadership departs the scene or is a more gradual process whereby the means of financing insurent activity becomes an end of itself. Perhaps this sort of thing is going on as well.
While the majority of speakers could be described as hard core COINdinistas (a couple explicitly declared they had drunk the ‘McChrystal Kool-aid’) the event organizers did not hesitate from bringing in alternate opinions. At least two speakers said that our COIN policy was not going to work and within the COIN supporters there were variations of ideas on how exactly to proceed. Here was my one quibble with the event. There were speakers who presented (in my opinon) contradictory positions yet they seemed deeply reluctant to call each other out and debate their points. It may be that such debates have already taken place in other forums, particularly the blogosphere, but it seemed a bit strange.
The conference ended with something they called a ‘bloggers roundtable’ which got together five or six of the presenters for a couple of hours of questions by the attendees and a representative from Small Wars Journal and Blackfive. I’ve had some problems with SWJ (usually when they get into discussions about criminality) but its pretty solid overall and probably best represents the community as a whole. But, Blackfive? There wasn’t an alternative military blogger that didn’t foam at the mouth? I dig that they’ve got a big audience but I have to admit, I’m not a fan. It would have been nice to see a bigger blogging audience (even if they couldn’t ask questions). Let’s face it, sites like SWJ and Blackfive produce a lot of content from multiple contributors. A round-table like this will get you one or maybe two posts that’ll quickly get buried under all their other content. If they got a medium or small blog, however, (for full disclosure this blog would best be considered ‘sub-atomic’) you might get more play. My recap of this symposium will probably continue over two weeks and while my daily audience is probably what those other sites get in 15 minutes you won’t get anywhere near the same amount of detail or (virtual) ink devoted to it on the big sites. In this regard, I’d recommend the COIN center think about their information operations and consider a wider ranger of possible outlets for their message.
I’ve struggled a bit with how to present my notes from the individual speakers. I thought about trying to develop posts based upon themes and just mash up the views of each speaker within those themes but that might break up the larger message or set of ideas that some speakers attempted to develop. In other cases, some speakers make nice foils for each other and the importance of their comments only really comes to light when set beside those of another. So, I’m probably going to go with a mish-mash of styles which will defy categorization.
So, buckle up…you’ve been warned.