COIN Symposium recap part 4

Some big picture issues regarding Afghanistan were addressed by Dr. Marston and Scott Moore.  As usual…my comments will be in italics.


The COIN challenge generally is training a brand of soldiers that can go from shooting at people one day to engaging with them the next.

I heard something like this from several speakers and it seems to me like they’re groping towards something like Barnett’s ‘sysadmin’ force.  According to Barnett, you need a force that does the kinetic stuff (blowing stuff up and killing people) but the people drawn to that sort of work (generally young men) tend not to be good at population-centric work.  So you need another groups that’s good at seeing and working with shades of gray, more comfortable with different cultures and generally being less impulsive (generally older, more experienced personnel).  I’m not sure how I feel about this whole construct but it sure seemed like that was the where some people were headed.  When I brought it up with one of the speakers during a break I was given a pretty definitive ‘No, this is totally different.’ but I didn’t really get an explanation as to why.

The center of gravity in this fight is not the Afghan people.  It’s about convincing the home populations of the U.S. and coalition partners to stay in the fight.

We’ve been focusing too much on creating an overly centralized government.

We’re getting trapped in our own meme of equating all insurgents with the Taliban.  (And probably equating the Taliban with al-Qaeda). That may have been helpful in the early part of the conflict but it’s becoming increasingly unhelpful.  Probably 20% of all insurgents are ideologically motivated Taliban.  I don’t know about that figure but the underlying idea seems sound.  If we consider all these people Taliban (or, even worse, terrorists!) then we’re going to have courses of action closed off to us in dealing with them.  This is where the chickens come home to roost for us by neither administration taking the time to actually explain these complex conflicts to the American people.  We just keep sticking with slogans and then when we need people to understand nuance we just sound like double talking lame-o’s.  Yet another consequence of assuming we can wrap up all our wars by the weekend.

There has been little training of Afghans in key sectors outside of Kabul.  Reinforcing a point that Lester Grau said the Soviets did well at.  Where are the hundreds of Afghans enrolled in American universities learning engineering, medicine, public administration, etc.?  We should be offering full scholarships to Afghans to get educations and send them back.  Yes, it’d be a tough battle given the near universal illiteracy but if we started this back in 2002 we’d probably have a small horde (can there be such a thing?) of such people reentering Afghan society right now increasing Afghan capabilities and acting as de facto ambassadors.

There’s been no cohesive message about Afghanistan from the multiple agencies of the U.S. government or from coalition partners.  Our biggest problem is the lack of a unified message.  Are we there for the long haul or getting out soon?  Are we there to rebuild Afghanistan?  Fight the Taliban?  Do something else?

Dr. Moore (his slides can be found here):

COIN is defined by three factors:

  1. stopping and/or managing violence
  2. building structures to address underlying causes in non-violent ways
  3. getting all the actors to agree that those structures are legitimate

We continue to have problems conceptually and practically with determining the scope, role and process (well, just about everything really) of tasks and responsibilities between the civilian and military spheres.

Traditionally, the U.S. military conducted the full spectrum of COIN tasks, including civil administration.  Civil agencies provided policy guidance and expertise to the military and later, indigenous institutions.

The U.S. rarely fielded robust civil capacity for administering or governing other states or regions as it had shades of imperialism which was deemed ‘unamerican’.

When it comes to civil tasks, the military usually assumes de facto responsibility.  Civil agencies can’t or won’t take a role (few U.S. gov’t employees want to go to a war zone and not a lot of agencies want to get involved), the military doesn’t want to develop the capability (out of fear they’ll get roped into the business of nation building permanently) and international agencies can’t be counted on (no handing off irksome problems on some bleeding heart NGO as they might not accept it).

This means the problems we’ve had (and continue to have) we can expect to see over and over again in conflicts like this.  And this is one of the reasons I had a hard time with Col. Gentile’s presentation.  We can be pretty confident that we’ll encounter conflicts like this in the future or situations where nations are failing and we determine it to be in our national interest to prevent that.  Our current plan of ‘We’ll make it up as we go along…and relearn everything next time’ just seems really inefficient and stacks the deck against us.  Had we had a robust (or even just an emerging) capability to do this sort of thing we might not have had such a rough go in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What we really need is some policy guidance.  The president should designate somebody (anybody!) to do this sort of thing on a permanent basis.  I know…this’ll whip up the black helicopter types with claims we’re lurching to one world government but either we’re going to do this sort of thing or we’re not.  Despite repeated claims since 1993 that we aren’t the world’s policeman and we aren’t going to get involved overseas, history has proven that to simply not be true.  The fact is, we’re going to be involved in unstable areas overseas, we’re probably going to want to have a capability to restore/impose order and install/support functioning institutions and governments so we should quit fooling ourselves into thinking we can do without a permanent structure to handle such situations.


One response to “COIN Symposium recap part 4

  1. Pingback: Things I’m reading ed. 100531 « The Hermitage 3.0 (Beta)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s