Saturday, January 19, 2013

Radically different COIN?

An interesting article in World Politics Review by Steve Metz on lessons we should learn from Afghanistan as we disengage.  Here is a key section:

..the way that Americans, including the U.S. military, think about counterinsurgency is flawed. Since the United States first became involved with counterinsurgency in a big way during the 1960s, the assumption has been that insurgency takes root in places that do not conform to the Western notion of what a government should do: specifically, provide services such as security and rule by law to "the people." When a state is unwilling or unable to do this, some of the people may shift their support to insurgents with the hope that the rebels will do a better job than the government at fulfilling public needs. Given this, American counterinsurgents believed that the key to success was providing the partner state with guidance and resources.

However appealing, this never reflected the way most of the world functions. It overemphasizes the extent to which people are loyal to whatever organization provides the most services and underestimates the extent to which political loyalty reflects ethnicity, race, religion, sect, clan, family and personal patronage, among other factors. U.S. troops involved in counterinsurgency often found that people have more affinity with insurgents who talk and look like them than with Americans, even though the Americans provide more schools, roads and other goodies. And U.S. thinking on counterinsurgency underestimated the extent to which people are willing to tolerate rulers who provide fewer services, so long as the rulers are not governing for their own personal advantage or those of their close patrons. Fairness, in other words, is more important than the quantity of services provided.

In an even broader sense, the American conceptualization of counterinsurgency assumed that partner regimes shared the Western notion of what a state should be: an entity that reflected the beliefs of all the people of a country and dispersed goods and services based on formal procedures such as the rule of law and democratic elections. The reality is that in many parts of the world, the state is a mechanism by which the group that controls it extracts as many resources as possible, whether money, concessions, government jobs, natural resources or pure power. When a parasitic political system is threatened by insurgency, those who control it will only make the minimum concessions necessary to hold on to power. The last thing they want to do is fundamentally alter a system that deeply rewards them. Yet that is what American counterinsurgency thinking expects them to do.

Afghanistan is a perfect example. Over the past decade, the country developed a political system that generated huge benefits for Karzai's loyalists. It was not in this group's interest to do the things that the United States advocated, such as holding fair elections, practicing greater political inclusiveness, making political appointments based on professional competence rather than cronyism, ending corruption and controlling smuggling and drug production. The Afghan elite's goal was to protect the system that rewarded them so well and sustain U.S. assistance by keeping the insurgency weak enough that it could not seize power but strong enough that it held Washington's interest.

Unfortunately, the United States approached Afghanistan with a one-size-fits-all counterinsurgency mindset. The U.S. method worked in places like El Salvador and Colombia, where the elite generally shared the American notion of what the state is supposed to do and thus were willing to undertake the degree of political and economic reform needed to undercut the insurgency. The Afghan elite have very different priorities and goals, and the Afghan people have a very different notion of why they should support one organization over the other. Even if Afghans do not much like the Taliban, the group at least is not motivated by the sort of parasitism that seems to drive the national government. Plus, Afghans know the Taliban will remain among them even when the Americans and Washington’s Kabul-based clients are gone. When in power, the Taliban were less inclined to provide roads and schools than the Americans and Karzai government, but it was also more likely to kill if opposed.

The lesson of Afghanistan, then, is not that the United States will never again engage in counterinsurgency, as the time may come 
when such an option is the lesser evil. Nor is it that if Americans remain steadfast they will succeed. The lesson is that the conceptualization of counterinsurgency that has driven the United States for the past decade only works under a very specific set of circumstances. If these circumstances are not present, America needs a radically different approach.

Unfortunately, there are few signs so far that this has been learned. Within the U.S. military, the idea still dominates that with a bit of tweaking and refinement, the methods used in Iraq and Afghanistan can provide a model for the future. If this continues, disasters await.

Sanka freeze dried version:

Three schools of thought exist with regard to Afghanistan:

1.  COIN failed because we didn’t stick with it long enough.

2. COIN doesn’t usually work, and even when it does, costs outweigh benefits.

3. Sometimes it works sometimes it doesn’t, but the COIN Strategy is based on sound assumptions.

4. Counterinsurgency with the assumptions mentioned in 3 (and presupposed in #1) only works when the cultural environment in theatre is favorable.

                a. Success is more likely to occur when the culture already envisions government along the lines of Western views, to include a respect for the rule of law, rights, supply of public goods intolerance for cronyism and other forms of corruption, and legitimacy derived from a government’s functioning well in these regards.

                b. It is less likely when cultures envision governments in ways that are not in the same vein as the Western  tradition; cultures that tolerate inconsistent rule of law, cronyism and corruption, and do not expect consistent or reliable supply of public goods.

5. The assumptions or presuppositions of COIN doctrine vis local populations as crafted by the US military for use in Iraq and Afghanistan are spelled out briefly in 4a. If a populace is not sufficiently imbued with the Western outlook or something very like it, the strategy of winning hearts and minds by attempting to set up local governments along the lines of 4a, will not have its intended effects.

6. This is not to say that counterinsurgency should be abandoned as a tool.

7. What it does suggest is that the strategic goals of COIN should be tailored to the cultural contexts of use. The goals of its use should be different when the cultures are not sufficiently similar to western cultures in their values and basic assumptions, when it comes to conceptions of human rights and governance.

To use the language of the article itself: “The lesson is that the conceptualization of counterinsurgency that has driven the United States for the past decade only works under a very specific set of circumstances. If these circumstances are not present, America needs a radically different approach.” 

Emphasis is mine. This naturally leads to a follow on question: What would such a radically different approach look like?  Here’s a stab at sketching two possible approaches:

Clearly, a common element in COIN, wherever it is used, is to live among and influence the populace to either refrain from supporting the insurgents, or to actively work against them.  Given that the strategy of basing these efforts on Western assumptions as to motivations and values of indigenes is not a guarantor of success, we have two other basic approaches: We can tailor these efforts very closely the contours of indigenous cultures (as they exists, not as we wish them to be), or we can fashion the strategy and efforts around some very basic and fundamental human needs and/or fears.  In essence we have two options as we move into areas and implement COIN as to what we will offer the populace or local governance as its ‘binary choice.’

Binary choice is at the essence of COIN theory and practice. Here are the two choices according to a ‘radically different’ form of COIN:

We can offer a culturally robust temporary form of governance, or a culturally minimalist form. The culturally robust form will have to mainly conform to THAT culture’s norms, not ours. This may lead to some ethically problematic compromises having to be made. For instance, we would have to ask ourselves whether we could acquiesce in allowing pederasty as an open practice in Afghanistan.

That’s one radically different application of COIN. Another:

 A way to avoid this sort of situation is to take the ‘basics only’ approach to temporary governance. This culturally minimalist form of COIN does not make efforts to take into account the particulars of the local culture.

What it does, though, is promise and provide only basic security and provisions, while presenting a relatively simple binary choice to the populace and any local governance, with clear consequences for each option. As long as the populace refrains from aiding and abetting the enemy, it will enjoy the basics of provision and protection. If it does not so refrain, actions will be taken to ensure that infrastructure and supply will not be available for enemy use.

As well, it will be a predictable result of such behavior that we will respond in this way: along with military measures to curtail enemy actions, either no major efforts will be made to supply provision and protection, or the effort will be significantly minimized. Local populace will have the option and time to vacate, however. We will behave in this fashion while at the same time respecting our Western traditions of non-combatant immunity, to the best of our ability. We will make no efforts to prevent NGOs and other such organizations from moving in to effected areas and provision, but we will not make major efforts to protect them as they do, nor will we provision the populace ourselves.

This state of affairs will remain so, just so long at the aiding and abetting continues.  It will just as surely cease once the behavior ceases. In general, certain privileges or immunities will be forfeit if aiding and abetting occurs, as for instance, property rights: If it is clear that houses, buildings or automobiles are being used to aid or abet the enemy, these will either be taken or destroyed. However, we will not present lethal threat to any of the populace unless; of course lethal threat is presented first.

As time moves on, and the populace and local governmental entities show significant evidence of cooperation, naturally we will first cooperate with them in handing over more responsibilities, and eventually depart, allowing local rule. However, as this evolves, we make no promises to acquiesce in any cultural practices we find odious. If the locals decide to allow such things after we leave, that is their prerogative. Until we leave, however, we will not countenance things we find wrong.