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Fundamental Flaws in COIN Doctrine

Last week, we wrote up a speech by Marine Lt. Gen. John Paxton, director of operations for the Joint Staff, who focused on the question of whether or not we’re winning in Afghanistan. On the face of it, that would seem to be an easy one. From ISAF press releases we learn that the Taliban is on the run after being booted out of Marja, the Afghan people are cooperating more broadly with western troops, development projects are proceeding, etc.

Yet, as Paxton pointed out, measuring success in counterinsurgency is exceptionally difficult. As he made clear, neither the commanders on the ground in Afghanistan, nor the leadership back here in the Pentagon, have settled on the correct metrics to determine effectiveness. At the moment, it’s an unresolved debate that needs to happen at the highest levels. “How do you measure stability and security on the ground?… What are those metrics, how do you state them?” Paxton asked.

Again, and not to sound like a broken record, but ground seized, enemy killed, weapons caches found, aid money spent, are not reliable or even preferable metrics of success in COIN. Providing lasting local security and good governance are what win these wars.

An idea of how difficult that last bit will prove can be seen by reading this report from a conference in England “Winning Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan: Assessing the Effectiveness of Development Aid in COIN” (found via the Kings of War site). The report’s findings, based on extensive on the ground research, are downright discouraging as they challenge some of the fundamental assumptions of a population centric COIN campaign.

Take this one for example: “Aid seems to be losing rather than winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan. At a time when more aid money is being spent in Afghanistan than ever before, popular perceptions of aid are overwhelmingly negative.” Apparently, aid projects are poorly conceived, seen as ineffective by the local people, spread inequitably and feed corruption. Even the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), the locally based development arm of the military, are typically seen by the embattled Pashtun in southern Afghanistan as empowering corrupt elites.

Also: “Afghanistan cannot effectively absorb the large increases in aid spending earmarked for the insecure regions of the country.” Shoveling huge amounts of foreign aid into Afghanistan leads to corruption and perverse incentives among power brokers to maintain the status quo. “The Afghan state’s rentier economy has politically destabilising consequences, as it reduces the government’s need to derive legitimacy from, or be accountable to, the citizens of Afghanistan.”

The recognized weak link in coalition efforts in Afghanistan is the Afghan government, as the report makes clear:

“Many Afghans believe the main cause of insecurity to be their government, which is perceived to be massively corrupt, predatory and unjust. A COIN strategy premised on using aid to win the population over to such a negatively perceived government faces an uphill struggle, especially in a competitive environment where the Taliban are perceived by many to be more effective in addressing the people’s highest priority needs of security and access to justice.”

The report recommends that COIN doctrine be more “evidence based,” meaning aid projects should be evaluated for their stabilization effects, rather than the amount of cash dispersed or projects implemented. The main causes of instability must be identified and addressed. The pressure to spend money and spend money fast is having a destabilizing effect. Digging wells and building roads can have a very localized impact, but only briefly through a “transactional exchange.” Aid’s role in feeding corruption must also be recognized and accountability measures should be enacted to better monitor aid distribution.

Even with reform in aid distribution, the report’s authors question the ability of the coalition to have a long term beneficial impact, given the formidable obstacle called the Karzai government, what it called “the potential disjuncture between COIN doctrine and political reality.”

– Greg

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

ohwilleke April 2, 2010 at 7:39 pm

It is worth remembering that the Taliban went from being a bunch of iternerant ministers to becoming the de facto government of almost all of Afghanistan as of late 2001, because they offered a less corrupt, consistent government, albeit harsh and retrograde, to people who had been in constant civil war for two decades.

Disciplined theocracy sells better than violent anarchy, and the warlords we backed had failed to unite until they were on the ropes and had CIA backing. The central government still doesn't have control over its warlords, even though it has a structure for them to cooperate now. Perhaps we should call in Swiss advisors, as they have a corner of the market for figuring out how to end corruption and establish order in a highly fragmented society.

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mad mike April 3, 2010 at 12:54 am

Afghanistan is now responsible for 75 percent of the world's heroin production. That will forever be a destabilizing factor, especially when the government leaders at every level, especially at the top, continue to profit from it. Hamid Karzai's brother is still in power in Marja. You can't call it a victory when, after winning militarily, you have to hand the country back to the heroin smugglers.

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Jared April 3, 2010 at 2:17 am

The aid projects are ill-conceived and they do enrich elites, particularly Afghan expats. The main problem is that success is being measured in dollars spent when it should be measured by return on dollars. The aid that we do spend should be more clearly linked to identified needs that provide long-term benefits and we should demand more security results in return.

As for a disciplined theocracy, that is indeed what the Afghans asked for; but as soon as they got it they realized that the practical difference was nil.

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Drake1 April 3, 2010 at 9:51 pm

Some points that stood out for me while reading the report:

1. We don’t know enough about Afghan people or society.

2. We don’t fully understand how international aide and CERP funding can act as a stabilizing and destabilizing agent in Afghanistan.

3. Aide can also be destabilizing.

4. More aide than the country’s infrastructure can sustain may be counterproductive.

5. Aide may help in attaining short term tactical goals, but may have very little effect on a long term strategic level towards WHAM.

6. Legitimacy of international forces does not necessarily = legitimacy of the Afghan government.

7. Aide could be contributing to a war and rentier Afghan economy which in turn is destabilizing.

8. Short term small projects seem to be not as effective in proving Afghan government competence as large long term projects.

9. We may have to be more realistic about accepting corruption as a regional reality.

10. The time frame set to achieve the mission may be undermining incentives to side with the international community in supporting the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA). The insurgents’ major comparative advantage is not only that they understand the local culture, but that they are not scheduling any time line for departure.

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Will April 4, 2010 at 5:02 am

"10. The time frame set to achieve the mission may be undermining incentives to side with the international community in supporting the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA). The insurgents’ major comparative advantage is not only that they understand the local culture, but that they are not scheduling any time line for departure."

This point is immediately followed by
"From the perspective of Afghan elites, however, there is an alternative side to the deadline, namely that it has the potential to signal to those currently abusing positions of power that ‘the party is not going to last forever’ if they continue not to reform their behaviour."

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Drake1 April 4, 2010 at 1:15 pm

10. Over the last several months, President Karzai has turned down repeated requests by both the American ambassador and the top American commander to move Ahmed Wali Karzai out of Kandahar.

10. President Hamid Karzai lashed out at his Western backers for the second time in three days on Saturday, accusing the U.S. of interfering in Afghan affairs and saying the Taliban insurgency would become a legitimate resistance movement if the meddling doesn't stop….Mr. Karzai suggested that he himself would be compelled to join the Taliban if the Parliament didn't back his controversial attempt to take control of the country's electoral watchdog from the United Nations

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Drake1 April 4, 2010 at 1:19 pm

Has the potential, but we have yet to see it:

10. Over the last several months, President Karzai has turned down repeated requests by both the American ambassador and the top American commander to move Ahmed Wali Karzai out of Kandahar.

10. President Hamid Karzai lashed out at his Western backers for the second time in three days on Saturday, accusing the U.S. of interfering in Afghan affairs and saying the Taliban insurgency would become a legitimate resistance movement if the meddling doesn't stop…Mr. Karzai suggested that he himself would be compelled to join the Taliban if the Parliament didn't back his controversial attempt to take control of the country's electoral watchdog from the United Nations

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Drake1 April 4, 2010 at 1:21 pm

This point is immediately followed by
"From the perspective of Afghan elites, however, there is an alternative side to the deadline, namely that it has the potential to signal to those currently abusing positions of power that ‘the party is not going to last forever’ if they continue not to reform their behaviour."

This point is immediately followed by
"From the perspective of Afghan elites, however, there is an alternative side to the deadline, namely that it has the potential to signal to those currently abusing positions of power that ‘the party is not going to last forever’ if they continue not to reform their behaviour."

I has the potential, but look at the results over the past two weeks.

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Drake1 April 4, 2010 at 1:22 pm

And what's with the Administrator deleting comments that do not break the discussion policy?

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paul April 4, 2010 at 4:48 pm

Its simple we isn't winning.its a different center,than what we think.Just like Nam.

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Dave April 5, 2010 at 3:07 pm

I served as the Director of Information Operations from March - December 2003. Nothing has really changed since I left there. It is sad to think that the Army Leadership in Afghanistan still doesn't understand what the Afghans want. Yes, they do want wells, but they expect them in the next couple of days, not months until the "funding" approved. The piddly amount has massive amounts of paperwork. and takes too long and the Afghans don't understand why it is so complicated for such a necessary and inexpensive project.

If you don’t give the Afghans what they want, it doesn’t matter what else you do. While I as there I came up with some really good ideas and solutions, but since I was “Just a Reservist” and a Field Artillery Officer, I didn’t understand. That myth was shattered when I told them that in 3-6 months, we will be getting involved in the Afghan poppy problems. I was told the British were charged with the responsibility and that we are not going to get involved. It was just over 3 months later when we were told that we were going to assist in the poppy production problems along with the British.

Let me illustrate a point that I used when I was in Afghanistan. I asked another Officer who had been there longer than I had and had a good grasp on most significant issues, problems, and had knowledge and understanding with the Afghan people, albeit, not extensive knowledge and experience that was desired. When I asked him “What do the Afghans want?” He told me “money”. I said that’s it? He said yes. I then asked him a question – what if the Afghan wants 5 goats, 10 sheep, 3 cows and 12 chickens? He and others told me that “we were not in the agriculture business”. OK, got it. Good example of how they ignored the problem and continued on the same path and it hasn’t changed much since I was there3.

When I asked “What would the Afghans buy with the money you give them”? Answer from the other officer “They could buy stuff.” What kind of stuff I asked? Livestock, grain, rice, etc. I then asked where can they buy those things here? He said they can’t, but they could go to places like Kandahar and buy things. Really I said. The officer said yes. The only problem was that it took the Army a couple of hours to fly from where we were to Kandahar and how does he think that the people without the means to fly down and buy agriculture and animals. I was then told “That’s their problem, not ours”. Now I understand, do you??? Well, needless to say, I did some things that proved to be very effective.

In terms of Measures of Effectiveness (MOE) the Army as well as a lot of DoD and Federal Agencies do not know how to measure progress, success and the benefits obtained and be able to determine the effectiveness of what was done. It may not be in terms of numbers, but it could be, and it can also be done with words that people understand and can draw excellent conclusions from those words and use them for the MOE. I have several examples and a couple of papers I wrote on how to measure effectiveness, but no one wanted to use them, much to the detriment of our Soldiers and Afghan People. I have done this type of work for years, but again, since I was a “Reservist” with over 25 years of Active and Reserve Service, I didn’t know how to do this type of specialized work.

I have many examples of how things might work – better, faster, easier, smarter® - however, the Active Duty Army knew better than the Reservists. I would have to get the articles I have already provided to Military.com and the other papers that no one wanted to do and let you be the judge. Maybe it might interest the Active Duty Personnel this time if it shows up somewhere else. To make this more interesting, I also worked for a couple of months with Human Terrain Systems and was able to provide a lot of input and support since I had been in Afghanistan. Lots of good things that could and were being done by the Staff located at Fort Leavenworth. They are doing a great job, but they could use help as well, more supplies, larger budget, more personnel, and other resources.

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Neoconvet April 5, 2010 at 4:06 pm

While our valient Soldiers and Marines are in the thick of this mess called Afghanistan, with all of it's tribal and 7th century Islamofacist views… we are killing a goodly number of these idiots…. only to have them breed even more idiots. It is a terrible cycle…that appears to run on forever. With the announced intention to leave…. (wonder why Roosevelt did not announce the location of the Invasion into Europe beforehand.)… it is clear that the Taliban and AQ have the time while we have a watch.
We will in time retreat to Fortress America and then wonder about our vulnerable borders, airports, sports facilities as these Islamofacists come here.
I prefer to keep killing the Muslim idiots there

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D'veed Natan April 5, 2010 at 4:39 pm

Afgans are tribal. The UAE works because each tribe has its own state. Iraq does not work; because, sunni, shiite, and kurds do not. Afgans are ag based and goats, sheep, chickens, and cows are what they would really appreciate while living in their own tribal area under their tribal leaders. All else is BS!

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danf April 6, 2010 at 3:15 am

I am no longer convinced that fighting in Afghanistan makes sense. Given the budget realities and priorities of the Democratic machine, I don't see how we can avoid being forced into a strategic withdrawl from the far Pacific. So victory or defeat, simple arithmetic suggests that we will leave in the end.

For Obama, Afghanistan is all about domestic politics. Iran will be nuclear armed in another 2 years. Obama has no intention of resisting that. So what sense does it make to pour blood and treasure into Afghanistan.

The pendulum seems to be swinging back to an emphasis on strategic warfare just as funding is gutted for these programs . F22, New warheads and missles, missle defense, new bomber programs, ship-building…Just my opinion.

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