God save the Queen (and COIN)

Before I dive into Chapter 1 of Hynek and Marton’s book on state-building in Afghanistan, just a couple of notes highlighting the importance of the subject.

Spencer Ackerman has a post up on Wired about a forthcoming report from CNAS that talks about the inevitable defense cuts (and if you want more – much more – detail on the subject go to his blog here).  It ain’t pretty:

 First on the chopping block, according to its forthcoming blueprint for defense cuts: counterinsurgency. Next: the Army and Marines who wage it.

Right now, the Army is prepping to shed 49,000 soldiers by 2016, bringing it down to around 520,000 active-duty soldiers..Even in the relatively rosy scenario of $400 billion cuts over a decade, the Army needs to shrink to 482,000 soldiers…Oh, and if the budget has to come down by $850 billion over ten years, prepare for an Army of 430,000 soldiers.

And if the Army’s in for budgetary pain, it can commiserate with the Marines. The Corps plans on slimming down to about 187,000 Leathernecks. Not enough, says CNAS: cut another 7,000 under optimistic budgetary scenarios; and another 37,000 under the most pessimistic one.

That means less ‘go it alone’ and more ‘Who’s with me?!’

Second, Peter has decided to provide additional context and insight on the subject of coalition state-building for awhile and has a post up about the U.S./Dutch relationship circa 2009.  It might seem to be really inside baseball stuff but this is exactly the sort of jockeying and horsetrading (what’s with all the equine talk?) that you kind of need if you want to get beyond the whole ‘Bah! Cheese eating surrender monkey!’ talk.

Enough preamble….let’s move on.

Anthony King writes about the British experience in Helmand Province from 2006-2009.  You may remember I wrote about a talk by a combatant commander who described his experiences in Helmand during this time period and you might want to overlay those observations with the discussion here.

Given that the British are the second largest component of forces in Afghanistan I reflected how little we hear about them (or anyone else) in the news.  Given that Afghanistan, even under the ‘best’ circumstances, has been seriously neglected I shouldn’t be surprised.  Still, King gets us up to speed pretty quickly and ties everything up in a nice bundle.  H argues that the British experience in Helmand needs to be seen in the context of a couple of factors:

  • the desire to repair their reputation in the wake of their poor showing in Basra
  • the desire to maintain the ‘special relationship’ with the U.S.
  • some features of British military culture (perhaps all military culture)

It’s the last one that I’d like to focus on now.  It’s probably not surprising (yet remains frustrating) that organizations like militaries or law enforcement that are wrapped up in a culture of action aren’t particularly interested in getting involved in other sorts of activities.  Still, I think King describes the deep cultural pressures of many organizations when he writes about the British army:

Because a brigade and its commander have only six months in which to put their mark on the campaign (and earn promotion and medals), there seems a predilection for engaging with the enemy; the number of bullets expended, enemy contacts and medals are concrete and emotive metrics of performance which are most highly valued by the military.

So, why should we expect (even by 2009) militaries to engage in COIN when the culture and rewards all remain focused on traditional warfare?  Even more so when, as LTC Jones said, nobody in the U.S. or the UK (or anywhere else) actually reads their doctrine.  At the conference I went to the jury was out as to whether that was a big deal or not since everyone (supposedly) understood the jist of COIN doctrine and that was good enough.  Perhaps that wasn’t a good assumption.

Both King and LTC Jones seem to agree that late 2009/early 2010 were tipping points for the British in Helmand.  They were able to concentrate their forces.  They were able to apply more sophisticated analysis to their area of operations to better understand their environment.  They began to intervene in a very specific approach to local politics.

Unfortunately, (one of the drawbacks of the publishing world) King’s article only describes the British experience up to early 2010 so it’s not clear if that tipping point was true or a mirage.  Further, given the artificial time constraints on the operation, is it too late for a turn around to do any good?

The British experience also demonstrates the difficulty in converting the principles of COIN into actual progress. In other words, you can do things ‘right’ and still lose ground.  So…

…while DFID’s [Department for International Development] development projects have typically helped the lives of ordinary Afghans, they have often failed either to encourage local communities to support the Karzai government or to reject the insurgents.

Pretty sobering stuff.

I’m not sure how much the ‘special relationship’ between the U.S. and UK was at risk and so would like to see a bit more evidence that British actions in Helmand had as much of an impact as King seems to imply.

King’s observation that a “war-fighting ethos may have been sub-optimal for fighting a counter-insurgency” seems to be more evidence supporting Thomas Barnett’s idea of a ‘SysAdmin’ force.  Here’s a refresher on that concept if you’d like one:

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3 responses to “God save the Queen (and COIN)

  1. Pingback: BWPC: COIN Director – Yes We Have No Metrics | Hamsters on the Titanic

  2. Pingback: People's Republic of Snarkistan | BWPC: COIN Director – Yes We Have No Metrics

  3. Pingback: BWPC: COIN Director – Yes We Have No Metrics | Sunny in Kabul

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