Doctrinal Confusion in COIN: What do you do when your forces no longer want to fight?

BY Herschel Smith
6 years, 5 months ago

FM 3-24 is a fine addition to counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine, and should be studied by all aspiring military leaders and strategists.  Two problems become apparent when COIN doctrine is applied in theater.  The first problem is the belief that the doctrine outlined in any single text or system is comprehensive.  This view can be characterized as the ‘either-or’ belief.  Common to this view is the tendency to find a single “center of gravity” in COIN.  If the center of gravity is the population, it is said, kinetic operations take second place to non-kinetic operations.

The second problem is one that teachers in just about every endeavor know all too well: the student is oftentimes more extreme than the teacher.  If social concerns, job creation, national reconciliation, and infrastructure are important concerns in COIN, then waging counterinsurgency is all about “armed social science.”  Lt. Gen. David Barno’s account of COIN in Afghanistan is important, found in Fighting the Other War: Counterinsurgency Strategy in Afghanistan , 2003 – 2005.

As we switched our focus from the enemy to the people, we did not neglect the operational tenet of maintaining pressure on the enemy. Selected special operations forces (SOF) continued their full-time hunt for Al-Qaeda’s senior leaders. The blood debt of 9/11 was nowhere more keenly felt every day than in Afghanistan. No Soldier, Sailor, Airman, or Marine serving there ever needed an explanation for his or her presence—they “got it.” Dedicated units worked the Al-Qaeda fight on a 24-hour basis and continued to do so into 2004 and 2005.  In some ways, however, attacking enemy cells became a supporting effort: our primary objective was maintaining popular support.

Note the critical error in judgment that had its seeds in the (mis)development of COIN doctrine.  Kinetic operations against the enemy took on the characterisitic of special operations by a small number of special forces operators against high profile personalities and so-called high value targets.  The fight became particular rather than comprehensive, while the nonkinetic operations took on the more comprehensive nature.  According to Lt. Gen. Barno, the campaign could be focused on either the enemy or the people (but apparently not both at the same time).  U.S. forces transitioned from one focus to the other.  How does this manifest itself in current operations in Afghanistan?  A recent report gives us a glimpse into the thinking of field grade officers in theater at the moment.

To undercut the insurgents – whose forces are an unusual mix of al-Qaeda operatives and fighters loyal to American nemesis Gulbuddin Hekmatyar – Kapisa is fast becoming a litmus test for the US military’s new and improved counter-insurgency campaign.

That means added urgency and stress on the work of a 75-man US-North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led Provincial Reconstruction Team – or “PRT”. But while senior US officers see these teams – 12 of them run by the US military – as the “new wave” in non-combat counter-insurgency, in practice their soldiers look a lot like old-school peacekeepers and “nation-builders”, the kind you find across the developing world under the oft-slandered banner of the United Nations.

Ten years ago, the fast-track US colonels and majors who now lead the Afghan mission would have referred to what goes on here in the name of counter-insurgency as “mission creep”; work well beyond the scope of serious American soldiering.

Now, the US soldiers who do the best peacekeeping aren’t afraid to boast about their deeds over the grumbles of colleagues who sport T-shirts that read: “The Taliban Hunt Club.”

“We have not been attacked while traveling alone, only when we are out with other teams or combat units,” says air force Captain Eric Saks, whose job description includes diplomacy, aid work and peacemaking. “Even the bad guys know we are not really looking for a fight.”

That is because Saks and his comrades are the folks to talk to for millions of US dollars in economic development funds.

Kapisa residents, leaders and youth groups approach Saks for investments in projects that address the standard list of developing world problems: women’s rights, youth employment, free speech and health care. The captain, a 30-something Long Islander, draws on a dollar budget of millions to lend support to the best and most “sustainable” project ideas.

For several years after the US invaded the country in 2001, economic development played second fiddle to the hunt for al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Villagers looked on as US soldiers shot and literally “bagged” their foe, then turned a cold shoulder to the populace.

That zero-sum strategy was making more enemies than friends, US officers admit now.

“Instead of killing them and seeing the insurgency just replace its own, we need development as a means of isolating the enemy,” says Ives, an engineer from Washington State, who heads up the larger Task Force Cincinnatus under which Saks serves.

This same theme presents itself in this more recent report.  Even though only PRTs, when the bad guys know “we aren’t really looking for a fight,” the doctrine has been misconstrued to be something that it isn’t.  It is seen to work alone and disconnected from a significant reason for the presence of U.S. forces in the region: kinetic operations against the enemy.

Isolation of the enemy by the development of infrastructure is one prong of the strategy to prevent the inducement to join the insurgency.   But lack of kinetic operations against the insurgency does nothing to address the large and growing membership of the Taliban and their increasingly violent attacks inside both Afghanistan and Pakistan.  In fact, if infrastructure is a necessary element of long term counterinsurgency, then the 50% reduction in foreign investments in 2007 due to the declining security situation runs counter to the intent and proves that one prong of COIN remains kinetic operations to kill or capture the enemy and thus provide security so that reconstruction of infrastructure can be effective.

Successful COIN, as we have seen in Iraq, isn’t about a singular ’focus’ and cannot be characterized as an ‘either-or’ choice or transition in phases.  Successful COIN is characterized by ’both-and’ in all phases of the campaign.  The deployment of 3200 Marines to the theater will force review and reconsideration of the very nature of the campaign.  The Marines will not conduct their part of the campaign “not really looking for a fight.”  Poor leadership has wasted time in Afghanistan.  The presence of the Marines might possibly reverse this trend by taking counterinsurgency back to its roots and clarifying the doctrinal confusion that clouds the current thinking.

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  • http://lewebpedagogique.com/coin steph

    In French Doctrine, there is no concept like “center of gravity”. Instead, french Army developped “major effect” to counter the flawed “either-or” of COG in COIN and Complex Stabilization Ops.
    So, to stabilize the situation, one must be engaged in “controle de zone/contrôle du milieu” (controlling AO and Controlling Environnement). These procedures mix kinetic and non-kinetic actions, against the ennemy or directed to the population (and even friendly forces), to produce three effects:
    -presence and proximity
    -deter and dissuade the ennemy
    -support friendly forces, either by Info Ops or PsyOps
    In this scheme, there is no COG, but either effects to achieve in order to control the AO/Environment
    Stéphane TAILLAT, PhD candidate in Military History and Defense Studies, history teacher and Reserve Officer in French Marines
    PS: sorry for my flawed english.
    PPS: in addition, one must be convinced that deterring rebels or insurgents need kinetic actions as well as non-kinetic. Force Protection, Population Protection and Enemy Destruction are not opposite trends in military actions.

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    Thank you for your patronage of this site. I agree, it seems intuitive that a continual mix of the two as necessary (kinetic and non-kinetic) is the key to success (i.e., security and infrastructure go hand-in-hand). As for your English, it is just fine, and certainly better than my French which is non-existent.


You are currently reading "Doctrinal Confusion in COIN: What do you do when your forces no longer want to fight?", entry #920 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Counterinsurgency,Featured and was published February 3rd, 2008 by Herschel Smith.

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