September 21, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: Countering COIN: The Fall of War and the Rise of Conflict


As of late September 2012, the decision by NATO and ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) to suspend joint training and "embeds" with Afghan units under battalion size, whether temporary or permanent, is more than a prudent security-driven measure in the light of increasing green-on-blue attacks that have seen Afghan soldiers and police kill 51 foreign service members since the beginning of 2012. It is also an overdue indication that prolonged war in the modern age — war as it has been conducted by Western democracies for the last century (invasion, occupation, rebuilding) — is reaching an end as an effective political option of last resort.

This form of deliberative war — waged either with shock and awe to overthrow and occupy or with partnering and training to promote and enable — has proven to be punishingly expensive and fundamentally ineffective as a tool of statecraft. And what is replacing it is potentially more disruptive and unpredictable. The fall of sustained warfare as conflict resolution has created a vacuum at the extreme end of foreign policy, one that is being filled by conflict where psychological force is as important as kinetic energy. The ability of the international community to develop security and foreign policies that incorporate this paradigm shift into future crisis planning will go a long way in determining how well it is able to avoid crisis in the first place.

The Soufan Group wrote in April 2012 of the likelihood that the Taliban would make a strong effort to disrupt the embedding of ISAF trainers and troops with Afghan units and thereby derail the overarching counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy adopted as what was then viewed as the only alternative between full occupation and full withdrawal (IntelBrief: Conflict Zone Series: NATO Counterterrorism Program in Afghanistan Faces Uphill Battle). The reason the Taliban would strike in this specific fashion is not, as has been opined, out of desperation, but rather the result of their meticulous monitoring of ISAF officials struggling to explain the latest strategy to an increasingly weary and indifferent public. Since the COIN strategy was officially adopted in 2009 (and unofficially well before that), every statement by ISAF officials has stressed the paramount importance of embeds, of operationally joining ISAF and Afghan units at the hip with the vision of becoming one force against the insurgency. The international community, the member nations of ISAF, and donor nations were told repeatedly, even passionately, that the success of the COIN strategy hinged directly on the success of partnering. This is vital in maintaining public support for prolonged conflict in modern democracies. But it was not only ISAF member nations that were listening to the plan; the insurgents were also paying attention (and perhaps more closely than the international community).


The Long Arc From Vietnam to Afghanistan

What is now unfolding in Afghanistan can be seen as the logical evolution of what began, in terms of public support within democracies for prolonged conflicts of choice, during the Vietnam War. In the aftermath of the United States' difficult years in Vietnam, people studied — and contentiously debated — the effect that television, particularly near-live broadcasts, had on public support for the war. For the first time, graphic images that captured the reality of war (a war the government had chosen rather than one that had been inescapable) were being projected into living rooms across the country, and the government had little ability to control either the images or the effects they had on the public. Technology had bared the real costs of the nation's engagement in Vietnam, and the seemingly impenetrable logic behind it, and together this proved fatal to the war effort.

Ironically, officials at that time, in an effort to lessen the obvious footprint of the American effort, stressed COIN and the Vietnamization of the fighting (a policy that gradually shifted actual combat responsibilities to the South Vietnamese Army). The terminology from Iraq and Afghanistan  — stressing patience while "they stand up so we can stand down" — is uncannily similar to that of Vietnam, but modern technological warfare (explosives and tactics) and modern technological communications (Internet and cellphones) have helped bring about today's radical shift in doctrine on joint training and operations that would likely not have occurred in Vietnam.

An acute awareness of  the visceral power of images and uncontrolled media on wars waged by democracies — in an age that makes the near-live broadcasts of Vietnam seem quaint compared to global cellular networks and smartphones — would have no doubt been enormously helpful when planning for extended conflict in Afghanistan. It is difficult to overstate the impact of ubiquitous media on both friend and foe in this conflict. The power and immediacy of the message over the interests and intentions of the messenger have proved to be such, for both ISAF nations and the Taliban, that in what is still considered a war by any definition, it took the killing of 51 people over the course of 9 months to reverse a strategy 11 years in the making. This further suggests that war as we have known it, horrible but oddly endurable and for a defined purpose, is rapidly becoming out-of-date.


The Evolution of Conflict

With their current strategies and policies, there is little democratic governments can do in terms of maintaining public support for wars of choice, however pressing the choice may be in terms of conflict resolution. The Internet, YouTube, Twitter, and their countless progeny will continue to prove, as they have in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in Syria, to be beyond central control in terms of defined war efforts. Modern war of choice, never the best answer for democracies, but understandable if seen as a last resort and a way to effectively remove a threatening thorn in the international community's side, is now so ineffective as to be nearly unthinkable for democracies. Democracies are no longer able to engage in far-flung non-defensive wars that rest on ensuring the "Blue Force Public" (the international community) fully knows the plan and timetable while the "Green and Red Force Public" (the local partner and the enemy) cannot. Whether this is a good or bad development is irrelevant to the reality of the situation.

What remains for the international community is uncertain and violent, not only for the conflict in Afghanistan, but for all current and future conflicts. Air power alone, the ostensibly safe middle ground choice for war planners, has proven adequate in forcing sides to the negotiating table or collapse (assuming adequate internal opposition), as was the case in Kosovo and recently in Libya. But air power alone is insufficient for modern warfare as attempted in Iraq and Afghanistan, meaning policymakers need another last resort option if they are to continue as they have.

In the interim, modern war — destroying in order to occupy and pacify — is proving so unsustainable that it may soon border on the unthinkable in terms of future informed planning. And yet armed conflict will continue to plague regions and create a need for international intervention and solution. How will modern democracies fulfill armed intervention demands without armed intervention? How will democracies, learning from the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, evolve their planning for foreign policy and conflict resolution without turning once again to the last resort of the last hundred years?

The evolution of warfare — and the array of potentially viable alternative strategies to prolonged conflict — will be addressed in-depth in forthcoming IntelBriefs.



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