Obama's COIN toss
In Afghanistan, we have a plan -- but that's not the same as a strategy

By Eliot A. Cohen
Sunday, December 6, 2009

It is impolite, but probably true, to say that when President Obama announced in March that he had a "comprehensive, new strategy" for victory in Afghanistan, he had no precise idea what he was talking about. In Washington parlance, the word "strategy" usually means "to-do list" or at best "action plan." As for "comprehensive" and "new," they usually mean merely "better than whatever my predecessors did."

So now, even after his speech Tuesday night at West Point, does the president really have a strategy for the Afghan war? What is a strategy anyway, in a war without fronts, one that might drag on for decades and that shades off into banditry at one end and terrorism at another?

Strategy is the art of choice that binds means with objectives. It is the highest level of thinking about war, and it involves priorities (we will devote resources here, even if that means starving operations there), sequencing (we will do this first, then that) and a theory of victory (we will succeed for the following reasons). That is the job of wartime presidents; it's why they have the title commander in chief.

Obama set out his objectives for Afghanistan, focused on thwarting al-Qaeda, and enumerated some of the means, chiefly a 30,000-troop, 18-month surge. But what about the hard part: setting priorities, establishing a sequencing and laying out a theory of victory?

By supporting Gen. Stanley McChrystal's recommendation to knock the Taliban back and protect the population, by devoting additional resources to development, and by surging civilians as well as soldiers, Obama has made his choice: counterinsurgency warfare, or COIN, as insiders like to call it. And counterinsurgency warfare has a theory of strategy, as preached and practiced by a relatively small group of soldiers, historians and social scientists.

The COIN sect has its heroes -- from British guerrilla adventurer T.E. Lawrence to legendary Vietnam adviser John Paul Vann to Gen. David Petraeus. It also has its canon, written by British veterans of Malaya such as Robert Thompson, French participants in the Algerian war such as David Galula and more recently American veterans of Vietnam such as Bing West. It exhibits, at least in the Western world, a remarkable consensus about strategy.

Counterinsurgency experts agree with McChrystal: Start with security for the population. Without security, neither governance nor development can move forward. The counterinsurgent must keep the sequencing tight; after the "clear" phase must come "hold" and "build," often in the same operation. In counterinsurgency, the dominant force wins all the firefights but loses if it does not stay to administer effectively.

The theory of victory lies in a competition for effective rule and legitimacy -- local political outcomes that are enabled by, yet distressingly independent of, military success. If you fight on behalf of a local ally, the key to success is building up your host's forces and capacity for governance, not your own.

A straightforward enough strategic language, one might think. Indeed, anyone can (and in Washington pretty much now does) learn enough to speak pidgin COIN, as it were. In the 1960s, the U.S. military studied the problem carefully, and the resulting manuals and surveys retain remarkable value. After Vietnam, however, counterinsurgency dropped from the curricula of war colleges and all but niche specialties within the armed services, such as U.S. Army Special Forces. In the latest Iraq war, some commanders -- H.R. McMaster, Petraeus and James Mattis to name just three -- applied the old ideas, adjusting for new technology and local circumstances. Now McChrystal's concept for Afghanistan reflects the knowledge relearned in Iraq.

However, a senior official slinging COIN argot ("oil spot tactics," "combined action platoons" and the like) at meetings far from the fight is one thing. An infantry captain plunked down in the mountains of Nurestan, figuring out how to control rugged terrain with a few American platoons, a larger force of questionable Afghan soldiers and police, and a mistrustful, war-weary population is something very different. With counterinsurgency, as with all military matters, implementing doctrine proves much more difficult than discussing it.

Perhaps in response to the strategy's newfound salience, several new books seek to study or further explain counterinsurgency, with varying degrees of success. James Arnold's "Jungle of Snakes" is useful to learn the fundamentals, competently summarizing past counterinsurgency campaigns in the Philippines, Algeria, Malaya and Vietnam, but offering few striking insights. Read it if you want to learn the basics of the American CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support) program in Vietnam, for example, or learn who tortured whom in the Battle of Algiers.

Meanwhile, the Rand Corp. has recently released its own COIN study, "Reconstruction Under Fire." Rand has long provided much of the government's semiofficial thinking about counterinsurgency, and during the 1950s and 1960s it published some remarkable works. But this new book typifies much of the contemporary Rand product: brief, lots of bullets and diagrams, thumbnail sketches of conflicts, and a conclusion pleading for further research.

History, more than theory, offers a better guide to COIN. David Ucko's "The New Counterinsurgency Era" is a dense, scholarly and useful work on how the American military adapted to counterinsurgency during the Iraq war, both on the ground and in the classrooms of Fort Leavenworth, where most of the Army's thinking gets done. The book captures the Army's self-inflicted amnesia about counterinsurgency in the wake of Vietnam and the difficult steps needed to relearn old lessons.

In this light, the much-heralded Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual, published in December 2006 and influenced most by Petraeus, deserved its status as a landmark document. But in many ways it merely recovered older wisdom. What has made it so difficult to put these straightforward and broadly accepted strategic concepts into effect in America's current wars?

Organizational preference, for one thing. The U.S. military, like most armies, orients itself to conventional warfare: direct, bloody and waged if possible in a desert or some other wilderness. Historically, conventional warfare dominates military training and education; a well-trained soldier's first and overwhelming instinct is to close with the enemy and kill or capture him. That's laudable when confronting the Wehrmacht, but less so when you're fighting the Taliban. The strategic first principles of counterinsurgency -- control and protect the population rather than chase bad guys, build your ally and give him the credit, remember that it's all about governance, not just tactical victories -- require painful relearning, from generals to sergeants.

Not all can adapt or have the qualities needed. Mark Moyar's "A Question of Command" explores this problem, and this brilliant young scholar of the Vietnam War reminds us that it takes a special kind of soldier -- reflective, patient, creative -- to lead counterinsurgency operations.

It takes a special kind of civilian, too. Todd Greentree, the author of "Crossroads of Intervention," is an active diplomat who participated in American counterinsurgency efforts in El Salvador in the 1980s. (Full disclosure: He wrote this book while a fellow in my strategic studies program at Johns Hopkins University.) His book weaves together personal knowledge and scholarly study and reminds us of forgotten conflicts in Central America that still have much teach us about small wars. As miserably unpopular as the Salvadoran conflict was, and as doomed as many considered the U.S. effort there, it succeeded in defeating a communist insurgency that once stood on the verge of success.

If El Salvador is one of our obscure wars, then the one never to be forgotten, the one that looms over politicians and generals, the one that pundits raid shamelessly for supposed lessons, is Vietnam. The balanced and well-researched "Vietnam Declassified" by Thomas Ahern, a former CIA operations officer, describes the agency's role in Vietnam. But, like so much history of that war, it barely deals with the Vietnamese; it's all about us. And herein lies the greatest weakness of the COIN literature: It often lacks deep knowledge of the other side.

Of course, insurgents rarely keep archives (hard to do in rice paddies and caves), and the Western experts usually lack the time or inclination to master the languages their opponents speak, whether Tagalog, Pashto or Vietnamese. Most contemporary anthropologists abhor the idea of working for the military, but the shrewdest counterinsurgents turn to that discipline for insights. Some, like Australian soldier David Kilcullen, whom I hired to work in the State Department, have doctorates in the field. Without hard thinking about and intricate knowledge of the other side of the hill, counterinsurgency can become a kind of military art form, dangerously abstracted from real life.

In every such war, the counterinsurgents learn the need for local knowledge: language first, and from it, all they can discover about authority structures, grievances, customs and local politics. The broad principles melt away because, as one colonel told me in 2008 while flying over eastern Afghanistan, the counterinsurgent soon realizes that "it's a valley-by-valley war."

The kind of specific knowledge needed does not lend itself to treatises, much less bestsellers. It requires the time and effort that British political officers took to learn the ins and outs of Pashtun tribes in the North-West Frontier province of India in the 19th century. In a world of rotating military and diplomatic assignments, three-month think tank projects and moving on to the next hot topic, it is difficult to develop that expertise.

Making COIN work in real time, therefore, requires the right kinds of practitioners, vast patience and local knowledge of a kind that is difficult to build up and easily perishable in large organizations. As Obama will discover, even setting the strategy seems easy by comparison.

Eliot A. Cohen is a professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and the author of "Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Wartime Leadership." He was State Department counselor from 2007 to 2009, advising on counterinsurgency issues.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company