Now that Election Day is over here in the United States, let’s go back to the politics of international intervention in Afghanistan. In class this week, we discussed the ambitious counterinsurgency strategy that has progressively replaced the light footprint in Afghanistan. Since 2002, the actual number of foreign troops in Afghanistan increased from approximately 15,000 to around 120,000 today. The light footprint is officially dead. Long live counterinsurgency (COIN)!
According to the December 2006 Field Manual 3-24 (FM 3-24), that establishes the U.S. doctrine for military operations in a counterinsurgency environment: “a counterinsurgency is military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological and civic actions taken by a government to defeat insurgency” (for a definition of insurgency, see previous post). It is not about killing the enemy, but about looking more attractive, more convincing and more likely to succeed than our opponent in the eyes of the population. In military terms, COIN is population-centric, not enemy-centric. In a nutshell, “population is the prize” (David Galula).
One major consequence of a population-centric approach is the cultural revolution that it implies for the U.S. military. The implementation of a successful COIN strategy will require a complete change of mindset for an institution that has a preference for enemy-centric approaches. But do gigantic institutions such as the U.S. army have that ability? FM 3-24 states that “in COIN, the side that learns faster and adapts more rapidly – the better learning organization – usually wins.” Knowing the flexibility of the Taliban movement and terrorist networks such as Al-Qaeda, can we realistically believe that the U.S. army has the ability to win that one?
Of course the enemy and the terrain still matter. But the enemy needs to be isolated from the population first. The security vacuum has to be filled and the government’s legitimacy enhanced. Above all, COIN is a political process. An extremely ambitious one, that requires not only a high number of troops on the ground, but also leaders with political and diplomatic skills, well trained in a variety of fields (governance, security, reconstruction, finance, economics, etc.). Is it really feasible? Is it sustainable in the long term? In other words, do we have the means to achieve our ends or do we have to rely on partners we don’t trust?