The Great Myth: Counterinsurgency
By Conn Hallinan
Foreign Policy in Focus
July 22, 2010
There are moments that define a war. Just such a one
occurred on June 21, when Special Envoy Richard
Holbrooke and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl
Eikenberry helicoptered into Marjah for a photo op with
the locals. It was to be a capstone event, the fruit of
a four-month counterinsurgency offensive by Marines,
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies, and
the newly minted Afghan National Army (ANA) to drive
the Taliban out of the area and bring in good
As the chopper swung around to land, the Taliban opened
fire, sending journalists scrambling for cover and
Marines into full combat mode. According to Matthew
Green of the Financial Times, "The crackle of gunfire
lasted about 20 minutes and continued in the background
as a state department official gave a presentation to
Mr. Holbrooke about U.S. and U.K. [United Kingdom]
efforts to boost local government and promote
agriculture in the town."
The U.S. officials were then bundled into armored cars
and whisked back to the helicopter. As the chopper took
off, an enormous explosion shook the town's bazaar.
When it was launched in March, the Marjah operation was
billed as a "turning point" in the Afghan War, an acid
test for the doctrine of counterinsurgency, or "COIN,"
a carefully designed strategy to wrest a strategic area
from insurgent forces, in this case the Taliban, and
win the "hearts and minds" of the local people. In a
sense Marjah has indeed defined COIN, just not quite in
the way its advocates had hoped for.
The Missing Cornerstone
In his bible for counterinsurgency, Field Manual 3-24,
General David Petraeus argues, "The cornerstone of any
COIN effort is establishing security for the civilian
populace." As one village elder who attended the
Holbrooke meeting - incognito for fear of being
recognized by the Taliban - told Green, "There is no
security in Marjah."
Nor in much of the rest of the country. The latest
United States assessment found only five out of 116
areas "secure," and in 89 areas the government was
"non-existent, dysfunctional or unproductive."
That the war in Afghanistan is a failure will hardly
come as news to most people. Our NATO allies are
preparing to abandon the endeavor - the Dutch,
Canadians and Poles have announced they are bailing -
and the British, who have the second largest contingent
in Afghanistan, are clamoring for peace talks.
Opposition to the war in Britain is at 72 percent.
But there is a tendency to blame the growing debacle on
conditions peculiar to Afghanistan. There are certainly
things about that country that have stymied foreign
invaders: It is landlocked, filled with daunting
terrain, and populated by people who don't cotton to
outsiders. But it would be a serious error to attribute
the current crisis to Afghanistan's well-earned
reputation as the "graveyard of empires."
A Failing Doctrine
The problem is not Afghanistan, but the entire concept
of COIN, and the debate around it is hardly academic.
Counterinsurgency has seized the high ground in the
Pentagon and the halls of Washington, and there are
other places in the world where it is being deployed,
from the jungles of Columbia to the dry lands that
border the Sahara. If the COIN doctrine is not
challenged, people in the United States may well find
themselves debating its merits in places like Somalia,
Yemen, or Mauritania.
"Counterinsurgency aims at reshaping a nation and its
society over the long haul," says military historian
Frank Chadwick, and emphasizes "infrastructure
improvements, ground-level security, and building a
bond between the local population and the security
In theory, COIN sounds reasonable; in practice, it
almost always fails. Where it has succeeded - the
Philippines, Malaya, Bolivia, Sri Lanka, and the Boer
War - the conditions were very special: island nations
cut off from outside support (the Philippines and Sri
Lanka), insurgencies that failed to develop a following
(Bolivia) or were based in a minority ethnic community
(Malaya, the Boer War).
COIN is always presented as politically neutral, a
series of tactics aimed at winning hearts and minds.
But in fact, COIN has always been part of a strategy of
domination by a nation(s) and/or socioeconomic class.
The supposed threat of communism and its companion,
domino theory, sent soldiers to countries from Grenada
to Lebanon, and turned the Vietnamese civil war into a
Cold War battleground. If we didn't stop the communists
in Vietnam, went the argument, eventually the Reds
would storm the beaches at San Diego.
Replace communism with terrorism, and today's
rationales sound much the same. U.S. Secretary of
Defense Robert Gates described Afghanistan as "the
fountainhead of terrorism." And when asked to explain
why Germany was sending troops to Afghanistan, then-
German Defense Minister Peter Strock argued that
Berlin's security would be "defended in the Hindu
Kush." British Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon
Brown routinely said that confronting "terrorism" in
Afghanistan would protect the home-front.
But, as counterterrorism expert Richard Barrett points
out, the Afghan Taliban have never been a threat to the
West, and the idea that fighting the Taliban would
reduce the threat of terrorism is "complete rubbish."
In any case, the al-Qaeda operatives who pulled off the
attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon got
their training in Hamburg and south Florida, not Tora
Hearts, Minds, and Strategic Interests
The United States has strategic interests in Central
Asia and the Middle East, and "terrorism" is a handy
excuse to inject military power into these two energy-
rich regions of the world. Whoever holds the energy
high ground in the coming decades will exert enormous
influence on world politics.
No, it is not all about oil and gas, but a lot of it
Winning "hearts and minds" is just a tactic aimed at
insuring our paramount interests and the interests of
the "friendly" governments that we fight for. Be nice
to the locals unless the locals decide that they don't
much like long-term occupation, don't trust their
government, and might have some ideas about how they
should run their own affairs.
Then "hearts and minds" turns nasty. U.S. Special
Operations Forces carry out as many as five "kill and
capture" raids a day in Afghanistan, and have
assassinated or jailed more than 500 Afghans who are
alleged insurgents in the past few months. Thousands of
others languish in prisons.
The core of COIN is coercion, whether it is carried out
with a gun or truckloads of money. If the majority of
people accept coercion - and the COIN supported
government doesn't highjack the trucks - then it may
Then again, maybe not. Tufts University recently
researched the impact of COIN aid and found little
evidence that such projects win locals over. According
to Tufts professor Andrew Wilder, "Many of the Afghans
interviewed for our study identified their corrupt and
predatory government as the most important cause of
insecurity, and perceived international aid security
contracts as enriching a kleptocratic elite."
This should hardly come as a surprise. Most regimes the
United States ends up supporting against insurgents are
composed of a narrow class of elites, who rule through
military power and political monopoly. Our backing of
the El Salvador and Guatemalan governments during the
1980s comes to mind. Both were essentially death squads
with national anthems.
The United States doesn't care if a government is
authoritarian and corrupt, or democratic - if it did,
would countries like Egypt and Honduras be recipients
of U.S. aid, and would we be cuddling up with Saudi
Arabia and Kuwait? The priority for the United States
is whether the local elites will serve Washington's
interests by giving it bases, resources, or commercial
Afghanistan is no different. The government of Hamid
Karzai is a kleptocracy with little support or
presence outside Kabul.
In many ways, COIN is the most destructive and self-
defeating strategy a country can employ, and its
toxicity is long-term. Take what didn't get reported in
the recent firing of former Afghan War commander
General Stanley McChrystal.
COIN's Long History
McChrystal cut his COIN teeth running Special
Operations death squads in Iraq, similar to the Vietnam
War's Operation Phoenix, which killed upwards of 60,000
Viet Cong cadre and eventually led to the Mai Lai
massacre. The success of Phoenix is best summed up by
photos of desperate South Vietnamese soldiers clinging
to U.S. helicopter skids as the Americans scrambled to
get out before Saigon fell.
But COIN advocates read history selectively, and the
loss in Vietnam was soon blamed on backstabbing
journalists and pot-smoking hippies. The lessons were
rewritten, the memories expunged, and the disasters
So COIN is back. And it is working no better than it
did in the 1960s. Take the counterterrorism portion of
Over the past several years, the U.S. Central
Intelligence Agency has been carrying out a sort of
long-distance Phoenix program, using armed drones to
assassinate insurgent leaders in Pakistan. The program
has purportedly snuffed out about 150 such "leaders."
But it has also killed more than 1,000 civilians and
inflamed not only the relatives of those killed or
wounded in the attacks, but Pakistanis in general.
According to an International Republican Institute
poll, 80 percent of Pakistanis are now anti-American,
and the killer drones are a major reason.
"Hearts and minds" soldiers like Petraeus don't much
like the drone attacks, because they alienate Pakistan
and dry up intelligence sources in that country.
But McChrystal's Phoenix program of killing Taliban
"leaders" in Afghanistan is no better. As author and
reporter Anne Jones notes, "Assassinating the
ideological leaders, the true believers and organizers
- those we call the `bad Taliban' - actually leaves
behind leaderless, undisciplined gangs of armed rent-a-
guns who are more interested in living off the
population we're supposed to protect than being peeled
off into abject Afghan poverty."
The "hearts and minds" crew have their own problems.
McChrystal and Petraeus have long stressed the
counterproductive effect of using airpower and
artillery against insurgents, because it inevitably
produces civilian casualties. But this means that the
war is now between two groups of infantry, one of which
knows the terrain, speaks the local language, and can
turn from a fighter to a farmer in a few minutes.
As the recent Rolling Stone article found, McChrystal
was unpopular because his troops felt he put them in
harm's way. Firefights that used to be ended quickly by
airstrikes go on for hours, and the Taliban are
demonstrating that, given a level playing field, they
are skilled fighters.
In his recent testimony before Congress, Petraeus said
he would "bring all assets to bear" to ensure the
safety of the troops and "re-examine" his ban on air
power. But if he does, civilian casualties will rise,
increasing local anger and recruits for the Taliban.
The war in Afghanistan is first about U.S. interests in
Central Asia. It is also about honing a military for
future irregular wars and projecting NATO as a
worldwide alliance. Once the United States endorsed
Karzai's fraudulent election late last year, the
Afghans knew it wasn't about democracy.
One of the key COIN ingredients is a reliable local
army, but U.S. soldiers no longer trust the ANA because
they correctly suspect it is a conduit to the Taliban.
"American soldiers in Kandahar report that, for their
own security, they don't tell their ANA colleagues when
and where they are going on patrol," writes Jones.
Somebody told those insurgents that Holbrooke and
Eikenberry were coming to Marjah.
Afghanistan is ethnically divided, desperately poor,
and finishing its fourth decade of war. Morale among
U.S. troops is plummeting. A U.S. military intelligence
officer told The Washington Times, "We are a battle-
hardened force but eight years in Afghanistan has worn
us down." As one staff sergeant told Rolling Stone,
"We're losing this f---ing thing!"
The sergeant is right, though the Afghans are the big
losers. But as bad as Afghanistan is, things will be
considerably worse if the U.S. draws the conclusion
that "special circumstances" in Afghanistan are to
blame for failure, not the nature of COIN itself.
There was a time when the old imperial powers and the
United States could wage war without having to bank
their home-fires. No longer. The United States has
spent over $300 billion on the Afghan War, and is
currently shelling out about $7 billion a month. In the
meantime, 31 states are sliding toward insolvency, and
15 million people have lost their jobs. As House
Speaker Nancy Pelosi told the Huffington Post, "It just
can't be that we have a domestic agenda that is half
the size of the defense budget."
Empires can choose to step back with a certain grace,
as the Dutch did in Southeast Asia. Or they can
stubbornly hang on, casting about for the right
military formula that will keep them on top. That fall
is considerably harder.
The choice is ours.
Conn Hallinan is a Foreign Policy In Focus columnist.
He also writes the blog, Distpatches from the Edge.
Portside aims to provide material of interest
to people on the left that will help them to
interpret the world and to change it.
Submit via email: [log in to unmask]
Submit via the Web: portside.org/submit
Frequently asked questions: portside.org/faq
Account assistance: portside.org/contact
Search the archives: portside.org/archive