Seven Observations on the Potential Strategic Implications of Population-Centric Counter-Insurgency Doctrine
By Bernard Finel
(1) From a competitive strategic perspective, population-centric COIN is extremely inefficient. In Afghanistan, the United States plans to spend over $60 billion per year and deploy a force of over 100,000 Western soldiers supporting Afghan security forces of at least 150,000 men. Most estimates peg the size of Taliban and other significant insurgent groups at fewer than 10,000 fighters operating on a budget of well under $400 million. The United States can probably afford to sustain a conflict with this sort of expenditure ratio, but it strikes me as problematic and a potential vulnerability that enemies might seek to exploit.
(2) Population centric COIN's focus on partnering with local allies makes a future disengagement more difficult to achieve. When units "live, eat, train, plan, operate" together, it clearly builds capacity and trust, but it also builds personal bonds and commitment. The consequences for the morale of U.S. forces of a withdrawal that occurs before the job is perceived done could be significant. The consequence is that our operational concept in Afghanistan may be inadvertently deepening our stake in the conflict by virtue of developing increased personal and institutional ties. This development may have positive or negative long-term consequences, but we should explore the issue in more depth.
(3) The "build" portion of our current approach may generate increased legitimacy for the government of Afghanistan, but it will also likely raise expectations and commit the government of Afghanistan to significant expenditures in the future to maintain and upgrade infrastructure and services. If these projects promote a virtuous cycle that dramatically increases Afghanistan's economic wealth, then these increased commitments are sustainable. Unfortunately, the history of development projects -- politically motivated or otherwise -- is not a happy one. It is likely that a institutionalizing a successful COIN campaign in Afghanistan will require a near-permanent commitment of American financial assistance in the annual range of several billion dollars.
(4) The American approach toward Afghanistan contains an unresolved tension between local autonomy and centralized control. This is not just a tactical or operational concern. The long-term implications of success or failure will depend significantly on the details of the political settlement we seek to promote or are successful in attaining. For instance, the implication of buying off the loyalty of the Pashtun communities to the central government may be quite different from the consequences of allowing a quasi-autonomous Pashtun region to develop. Responsiveness to local concerns -- in short -- may defuse support for the insurgency, but the specific nature of local concerns may have broader strategic consequences than we realize. In other words, how we defeat the insurgency may be as significant as whether we defeat it.
(5) It is almost certain that the institutionalization of COIN as a key element of American military power will reduce American willingness to use force. If the corollary of using force is the necessity of a multi-year occupation/COIN campaign to shape the future environment, it is likely that American political elites will be reticent to make this sort of commitment. This may be a positive or a negative development, but is a likely consequence.
(6) Every successful strategy ultimately spawns effective counter-measures. American conventional military power has encourages potential adversaries to pursue various asymmetric responses, ranging from insurgency to the pursuit of catastrophic or disruptive technologies. If population-centric COIN is as successful as its advocates hope, the pattern will repeat itself. Just as the success of American conventional military power shifted conflict into a new, relatively more difficult arena, the success of COIN would also have unintended consequences.
(7) There is some compelling evidence that "fighting them there" does reduce the risks of "fighting them here." Resources expended by "jihadist" groups in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are resources that cannot be used to target the United States or American interests elsewhere. As a consequence, it is possible that an American "victory" in Afghanistan -- unless it critically undermines the "jihadist" cause -- might encourage greater efforts to strike at the American homeland.
Dr. Bernard I. Finel is a Senior Fellow at the American Security Project where he directs research on counter-terrorism and defense policy He is the lead author of ASP's annual report, "Are We Winning? Measuring Progress in the Struggle against Violent Jihadism."