Real COIN

What we’re doing in Iraq and Afghanistan is not counter-insurgency but some form of occupation.  The governments of those countries can do COIN, and we can also do COIN but only in our country and its territories — where we are the government, in other words.

The history of occupations since the end of WW II is not replete with success.  Even the mighty Soviet Union was not able to continue to occupy Eastern Europe (let alone Afghanistan), the French failed in Algeria and Vietnam, and we failed in Vietnam.

If you count Iraq as a success, show me where our goals included installing a corrupt Shi’ite theocracy that has become a close ally of Iran, ethnically cleansing Baghdad, and eliminating women’s rights (which were among the most advanced in the Arab world under Saddam’s regime, for all its brutality) in much of the country.  We have also virtually eradicated the Christian community in Iraq, and the Sunnis are getting restless again in al-Anbar.  Some success, despite some 4,000 US fatalities and roughly $1 trillion (and counting) down the drain.

The history of real COIN, however, is different.  Legitimate governments can often quell insurgencies in their midsts usually by one of two methods:

  • Co-opt the rebels and make other political changes to defuse the insurrection
  • Wipe out the rebels along with much of the population that hides and supports them

India faces a virulent insurgency known as “Naxalites.”  The NYT today carries an update:

Here in the state of Chattisgarh, Maoists dominate thousands of square miles of territory and have pushed into neighboring states of Orissa, Bihar, Jharkhand and Maharashtra, part of a so-called Red Corridor stretching across central and eastern India.

Violence erupts almost daily. In the past five years, Maoists have detonated more than 1,000 improvised explosive devices in Chattisgarh. Within the past two weeks, Maoists have burned two schools in Jharkhand, hijacked and later released a passenger train in West Bengal while also carrying out a raid against a West Bengal police station.

After trying option 1, political reform / co-option, which has no appeal for the Maoist Naxalites, the Indians now appear ready for option 2:

“It may take one year, two years, three years or four,” predicted Vishwa Ranjan, chief of the state police in Chattisgarh, adding that casualties would be inevitable. “There is no zero casualty doctrine,” he said.

This will not be pretty, but if pressed to completion, history suggests that it will be successful.  This is real COIN, and those who support our make-believe version in Iraq and Afghanistan might pay heed.

[Speaking of Afghanistan, Victor Sebestyen had a piece in Thursday’s NYT that vividly illustrates the folly of letting chimera such as “not appearing weak” lock orientations into a tar-baby strategy:

The Soviets saw withdrawal as potentially fatal to their prestige in the cold war, so they became mired deeper and deeper in their failed occupation. For years, the Soviets heavily bombarded towns and villages, killing thousands of civilians and making themselves even more loathed by Afghans. Whatever tactics the Soviets adopted the result was the same: renewed aggression from their opponents. The mujahideen, for example, laid down thousands of anti-tank mines to attack Russian troop convoys, much as the Taliban are now using homemade bombs to strike at American soldiers on patrol, as well as Afghan civilians.

“About 99 percent of the battles and skirmishes that we fought in Afghanistan were won by our side,” Marshal Akhromeyev told his superiors in November 1986. ]

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One Response to “Real COIN”

  1. historian1944on 02 Nov 2009 at 1:53 pm 1

    It appears the only way to really handle COIN is to have it be on your territory. One of the keys to Indian success is going to be that they’re not going anywhere (it is in their country, after all) so the insurgency simply waiting it out really isn’t an option.

    I think this is also why the Russians have had some modicum of success in Chechnya (though I’m not certain how it could be considered that on any side, but I’m struggling to find the right word), because it became largely clear that, no matter what happened, the Russian presence wasn’t going away. I’m sure also making sure that all males of a certain demographic were made to leave or else made dead helped, too.

    It would be much more useful for the Obama administration to read things about the Soviets in Afghanistan rather than the US in Vietnam, because the Soviet experience is far more relevant. We’re doing a good job of duplicating everything they did that didn’t work, though they were far more efficient at providing basic services than we are.

    We hear a lot about the loss of prestige if we leave Afghanistan, but to me the time to consider prestige is prior to embarking upon the fool’s errand, not during it. Is it better for prestige to walk away, or to have a tremendously inferior opponent refuse to be defeated indefinitely?