3 critiques on counterinsurgency
There’s not many who dare critique current counter-insurgency (COIN) and it’s “population-centric” ideology. I mean, who would with labeling like that? To go against it would almost mean going against the population, right? Well not exactly. Like every approach towards a policy (especially one where we spend of $100 billion a year and risk the lives of many) it needs serious critique.
I don’t mean to say that a “population-centric” approach is worse or equally bad as the old approach. Or even that it is a bad way to go in general. But instead we should analyze the current doctrine on COIN as if it were a stepping stone to understanding a more optimal strategy. One that required a minimal commitment (of our physical resources – troops/money/aid workers) and provided a maximum benefit.
This last week, I came across these three general critiques on COIN which at points overlap and reinforce each other.
The first is this well-written post by Todd MacDonald. In it, MacDonald compares “nation-building” and “population-centric” COIN to Migdal’s notion of a social contract (recognize this Lesley), established between the state and its population as a form of currency and social control. MacDonald makes a lot of good points and I recommend it as a definite read. But here are some excerpts that my thesis may argue are relevant critiques of COIN, e.g. that it is both unsustainable and undesirable as a policy. Moreover, that COIN’s outcomes must be seen as legitimate by the population and rooted in an organic process that reflects the true nature of a host nation and its people… and not idealistic Western versions of what constitutes a well built state. Here’s what MacDonald has to say:
If legitimacy must be situated within the norms and values of a population, then the counterinsurgent must realize what social contract is being offered by the state, what social contract is being offered by CCNAs [insurgents], and how these social contracts are regarded by the population. Attempting to force a social contract on an unwilling population is not only unsustainable for the counterinsurgent, but it is also counterproductive. Pushing a social contract that is incongruent with the norms and values of a population is a poor investment.
The importance of time and resources is reflected in one of the main tenets in nation-building in both Iraq and Afghanistan: capacity building. The “Afghanistanization” and “Iraqization” of the state and state agents (e.g. the army, police, and civil service) is the idea that Afghanis and Iraqis will be able to replace foreign nationals. [Michael] Ignatieff refers to capacity building or the empowerment of local people as “the authentic vocabulary of the new imperialism.” (emphasis added)
Following that, let’s look at a piece by Kelly Beaucar Vlahos in the American Conservative. While Vlahos’ tone is rather vindictive, buried beneath the harsh personal indictments are some relevant critiques on contemporary COIN. To summarize, Vlahos critiques COIN’s inherent “Long War” crusaderism as effectively turning American troops and host-populations into experimental “guineu pigs”. Additionally, Vlahos makes an observant point that the commitments we are making in Afghanistan and Iraq are prescribed to be met with civilian aide specialists and foreign service personnel, but instead are driven by the military. The point being that with civil reconstruction matters, the military is of limited utility. Here’s some excerpts from Vlahos:
In Counterinsurgency 2.0, the Democrats and their military partners now emphasize a “population-centric” over an “enemy-centric” approach, rebooting the old “clear, hold, and build” by adding a “civilian surge” and a ramped-up humanitarian mission. The goal for Afghanistan is to flood the country with Foreign Service officers, diplomats, and aid workers to fight corruption and rebuild institutions. The military serves to protect populations, “open up space” for democracy, and eventually marginalize the enemy.
So far it’s not happening that way. The Pentagon has maintained a lead on operations, and according to reports, there just aren’t enough State Department officials to make a dent in Kabul, so DoD is planning to take up the slack by directing capable Reserve officers (and probably private contractors) toward the civilian component. (emphasis added)
Quick note, this is true: Within the new supplementary budget, roughly 80% of our resources for the war efforts are going to fund military operations and personnel. This is in direct contrast to Petraeus’ recommendation that 80% of our war resources go to fund civil aide.
Last bit from Vlahos:
COIN has yet to be fully tested or even legitimated by any success outside of the surge narrative. So while one well-connected think tank [presumably CNAS] gets top billing in Washington, the people of Iraq and Afghanistan—as well as the American men and women serving dutifully there—remain “long-term” guinea pigs. If it doesn’t work, an office on Pennsylvania Avenue might shut, but the implications for the world could be catastrophic
Let me conclude with an anecdote from this Washington Post article by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. I won’t get too much into Chandrasekaran’s article, except that it highlights some inefficiencies of American aid policy in Afghanistan. The article is long and very good, so I recommend reading the whole thing if you get the chance. To me, this anecdote from the article reflects how “capacity-building” and “nation-building” can often be misguided and doesn’t necessarily match with what the host-population would want.
Andrew S. Natsios, the USAID administrator at the time [during the Bush administration], had recently viewed cobblestone roads in Bolivia’s Chapare rainforest that were built under a U.S.-funded alternative-livelihoods program to discourage coca planting. He figured that such roads, which are inexpensive but require extensive manual labor to build, could be a new tool in the fight against poppies in southern Afghanistan because the construction effort would result in thousands of short-term jobs. Chemonics [the private-contractor partnered with US AID] readily agreed.
The Bolivians trained 46 Afghans in the art of placing fist-size river stones on the ground. Then they set about constructing a road from the capital of Helmand to an archaeological site on the outskirts of the city. Once a sixth of a mile was complete, Chemonics held a celebration that featured speeches from local officials and the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.
Chemonics had plans to build additional cobblestone roads across southern Afghanistan, but local Afghan leaders objected. They said that they were willing to humor the Americans with the path to the ruins, but that what they really wanted were gravel and asphalt roads. They complained that the cobblestones hurt their camels’ hooves.
“It wound up being a huge waste of time and money,” said one person who worked on the project. “Nobody did the due diligence.”
Natsios maintains that the cobblestone roads were a good idea, but he said he could not comment on the implementation because it occurred after he left the agency. A Chemonics spokeswoman said the company “can’t comment on the decision-making process that took place before the work began.” A senior USAID official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Afghan officials initially supported the project but then changed their minds because they believed they could extract kickbacks from gravel and asphalt construction. (emphasis added)