7 Observations on Population-Centric COIN

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."

0
Your rating: None

Comments

Point 1 is potentially correct but need not always be so. Thus it becomes moot.

Point 2 is a valid area for study -- discussion will not solve it, reasonable people can disagree on the effect -- such study should also investigate the effects on combat efficiency and the partnering aspect of our tour rotation policies in lands where the local allies do not have the luxury of rotations...

Point 3 is quite valid and merits strong consideration by the Politicians who would commit to such operations.

Point 4 is the crux of the interventionist model. What, precisely is hoped will occur? What is the probability of that actually occurring? The fact is that interventions rarely achieve the goals initially stated and often leave a settlement that is little if any less satisfactory than existed to precipitate the intervention.

Point 5 is possibly true but addresses the wrong aspect. See the Rule of Thirds below. The real issue is the political elites sensing of what they think the American voter will tolerate. That has a significant impact on the degree of urgency applied to the use of force. Domestic politics are far more important in this context than the international situation.

Point 6 is true and the ability of most potential non-state adversaries to reach decisions and respond more rapidly than can the large cumbersome US bureaucracy gives them a flexibility to always find and exploit weaknesses. We can adapt and adopt more flexible response nodes but unless we do so, this effect will remain a difficult problem for us. However, there are other critical concerns on this issue.

The first is that 'population-centric COIN' is a misnomer. Unless we apply it withing US borders, it is not COIN. That is not a minor semantic quibble. It is important that everyone realize and remember, always, that if we are doing such work in another Nation we are assisting that Nation and their approach may be quite different than the one we would use; and it is, after all, their country. We will never have the control to use OUR practices completely in their nation -- and thus does not suit our desire to be control freaks at all well...

The second issue is that population centric efforts require large bodies of troops and large quantities of time. We are not likely to have an adequate number of the former and the latter will always be in short supply -- and our previously cited rotational policy will not aid either of these difficulties. An ancillary point on this aspect is accurately stated by Schmedlap and Michael C on both the 'selling' of the effort and more importantly on the fact that these two wars will deter much taste for future adventures along this line for quite some time.

Thus, the limited COIN ability we acquire will dissipate through disuse over time and another effort at another time will likely mean reinventing wheels again. We can better retain the skills and knowledges this time, certainly better than we did before -- but we're still confronted with the fact that American patience and population centric COIN are diametric opposites and the issue of skill decay will not help.

The third issue is exemplified by Gulliver's comment above:

"Do you so doubt the competence and discernment of our senior leaders (both political and military) as to assume that just because a capability exists, it will be used inappropriately, and in every scenario? That everything will begin to look like a nail?

There's plenty of precedent for this, so I'm not sure I can blame you if you do, but I guess I have slightly more faith on this point."

Based on many years of close observation of this aspect, my response to his question is "More often than not." Not because they're abysmally stupid or unconcerned about this Nation but due to a combination of bureaucratic inertia, raw ignorance of the nation to be 'aided'and mostly the arrogance of power. Virtually every problem encountered in Viet Nam, Afghanistan and Iraq was foreseen and raised by people within the Armed Forces yet the senior people, military and civilian, ignored most of the warning and charged blithely ahead.

There's also the Rule of Thirds -- Of Americans 1/3 will oppose a war, 1/3 will favor it (mostly on political party lines) and the remaining third will probably initially support but will turn against it if good results are not obtained in three years or less. That historically accurate tendency does not lend itself to COIN like operations. It leads to Michael C's note that more are now opposed to than are for the efforts. Americans do not object to casualties -- they do object to casualties with no results and we are not a patient people.

Unless someone can guarantee that the policy makers will thoroughly consider the effects of the Rule of Thirds, the potential consequences including those possible unintended that might be vaguely discernible, the state of training of the force (a source of many of the problems in both Afghanistan and Iraq...), the available intelligence and all the other factors -- not least that population centric COIN is expensive in terms of time, troops and dollars -- then any future interventions will likely be as poorly conducted as the last three big ones. There have been other, smaller interventions where 'population centric COIN ' was not an issue. They all worked reasonably well. I think there's a message in that...

Point 7 is probably correct; I believe that an indication that we are as a nation willing to see things through is far more important than the draining of resources and that greater or lesser efforts to strike at the US will be little affected by either variation. What can affect that strike potential is an obvious ability and willingness by us to surgically strike and disrupt any discovered attempts and respond significantly to actual strikes. We have partially demonstrated that with efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those efforts need to be brought to reasonably successfully conclusions and very obvious and public preparations to improve our detection and response capabilities need to occur. Think 'Reforger' and 'Bright Star' like training exercises aimed at demonstrating a strategic raid capability...

I have to agree with schmedlap with an important addition. While COIN has been institutionalized, it is not in a good way. In total, more are against the wars (both Iraq and Afghanistan) than are for them. Both wars will leave bad tastes in the mouths of Americans.

The only similiarity is the much more unpopular Vietnam war. And it took quite a few years to participate in the next conflicts that were "quick and easy" like Panama and Vietnam. So even though COIN has been institutionalized the lessons will wear off over time.

"But why does 'the institutionalization of COIN as a key element of American military power' imply that 'the necessity of a multi-year occupation/COIN campaign' is a corollary of the use of force?
I don't agree with this logical leap."

I think it depends upon which arena the debate is taking place in. If we're talking doctrine or military strategy among practitioners, then the logical leap will fall short. If we are talking about how the debate is perceived in the public domain, among laymen, then the corollary holds. The public understanding of this is not nearly so nuanced as yours. Most people have a tough time wrapping their brain around the fact that total war is not appropriate in all cases. They are only now "expanding" their understanding to realize that you can fight like WWII or fight like post-2007 Iraq. Give the public another 10 years and they might be open the suggestion that there is a third way.

Given the public's lack of sophistication on these issues, support for any war will be limited to selling it as HIC or COIN. If sold as HIC, there will be immediate skepticism that the conflict will turn out like Iraq - sold as a quick HIC, but degrading into a protracted LIC. Rather than cries of "no more Vietnams," the public will be demanding assurances that the HIC will not transition into a long, protracted COIN op. Bush was able to sell OIF in part because of 9/11, but also because of the speedy operations that the public remembered in Panama and Desert Storm. Any future attempts to sell will be hindered by memories of OIF. In that regard, COIN as a key element of military power has already been institutionalized in the view of the public. And in terms of "American willingness to use force," that is the only view that matters.

But why does "the institutionalization of COIN as a key element of American military power" imply that "the necessity of a multi-year occupation/COIN campaign" is a corollary of the use of force?

I don't agree with this logical leap. To illustrate: there are people who argue in favor of this institutionalization while opposing or expressing reservations about the employment of those very COIN capabilities in Afghanistan. (These people are few and far between, often because many of those in the former camp could be said to have credibility and/or career success invested in the latter.)

There are imaginable scenarios in which force could be employed without a COIN campaign, right? This reminds me more than a little of Michael Cohen's argument from several months ago. Do you so doubt the competence and discernment of our senior leaders (both political and military) as to assume that just because a capability exists, it will be used inappropriately, and in every scenario? That everything will begin to look like a nail?

There's plenty of precedent for this, so I'm not sure I can blame you if you do, but I guess I have slightly more faith on this point.

>>Why?<<

Do you think Bush could have gotten public support for the Iraq War if instead of promising a "cakewalk" costing $60 billion, he had told the public that the war would result in 4k combat deaths, a 9 year occupation, and $1 trillion in total costs?

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.

Why?

As a COIN skeptic I agree with pretty much everything said here, predicting negative and unexpected or unplanned for outcomes where the author, probably with some wisdom, leaves outcomes open for debate - unfortunately it's a debate that current military leadership and most certainly the Obama administration seem willing to dismiss. It's time to think hard about how much 'wishful thinking' underpins the whole idea of COIN. I especially worry about the consequences of point #5.

I love your article for the various issues our military and national security must continue to address. However, the first point is solely for the military to bear, not COIN theory.

It is a false argument to say population-centric COIN is expensive. Operating the US military--Army, Air Force and Navy--is expensive. Since the Vietnam war, an extremely expensive war, the bureacracy and wasted spending of the US Army has only increased. Fighting a maneuver war of short duration is extremely expensive. Further, the failures of kinetic or target-centric COIN has been expensive for the last eight years.

In short, our military is expensive, counter-insurgency is an extension of that.