Rosen on Afghanistan: No “Control,” No COIN

Nir Rosen holds forth from Afghanistan’s recently-escalated Helmand Province in his latest for Mother Jones. Along with Rosen’s characteristically illuminating anecdotes from the front lines (like encountering a group of doped-up Afghan National Police), we also get some sobering analysis. It turns out that counterinsurgency — supposedly at the center of this latest “surge” — in Afghanistan is likely not all it’s cracked up to be.

“The Marines are trained to go off a ship, hit the ground, and f*cking charge,” Maj. Jim Contreras of the Illinois National Guard tells Rosen, leading the latter to suggest Marines might not be “suited for counterinsurgency.”

Counterinsurgency, or COIN, has been in vogue at the Pentagon since the success of the Iraq surge, and its dominance was cemented when President Obama chose General Stanley McChrystal, former head of special operations forces and a recent convert to counterinsurgency, as his commander in Afghanistan. Shortly afterward, Obama promulgated his new strategy “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” The primary tool would be COIN.

[…] The emphasis is on using the least amount of violence against the enemy, familiarity with the local culture, and painstakingly removing popular support for the insurgents. This involves using proxy forces to kill those who cannot be “reconciled,” and searching for political solutions that tempt the civilian population away from the insurgents.

In some ways, COIN and the related “stability operations” doctrine are a rejection of the neoconservative focus on military might as the key tool of foreign policy. Just as the neocons ruled the Pentagon under George W. Bush, so it seems that the proponents of “population-centric” fighting now have a preponderance of influence in the Obama administration.

To liberals, these COINdinistas, as they are dubbed, might seem kindred spirits. They emphasize nonlethal means, humanitarian aid, development work, and protecting the civilian population. They recognize that military force alone cannot solve conflicts, and that in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military did not know how to operate in a war where “the terrain is the people.” But the end result is still a foreign military occupation—which is not America’s stated goal in Afghanistan.

To say that you need to kill those you can’t “reconcile” means you need to reconcile a whole heck of a lot of people. “Reintegration,” as it’s sometimes called, can be tricky. Nick McDonnell captured one such agreement during the winter.

In the New York Review of Books, Ahmed Rashid discusses, among many other topics, the Pakistani army and intelligence apparatus’s new willingness to help negotiations between the U.S., Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban.

But judging from Rosen’s piece, the “surge” may not actually be big enough to establish the kind of “control” needed to bring around the ‘reconcilable’ masses — no matter what the Pakistanis offer. (Rashid cites Pres. Obama’s special representative to “Af-Pak” Richard Holbrooke’s 70 percent as the portion of the Taliban that are buy-able.) Rosen offers expert opinion on the sort of numbers that would be needed for “control”:

Control is essential to a successful counterinsurgency campaign. According to Stathis Kalyvas, the Yale political scientist and civil war expert whose book The Logic of Violence in Civil War is very influential among counterinsurgency theorists, “The higher the level of control exercised by the actor, the higher the rate of collaboration with this actor—and, inversely, the lower the rate of defection.” But by that logic, the Americans will never have enough troops in Afghanistan to achieve control. A generally accepted ratio for a successful counterinsurgency is roughly 1 cop or soldier per 50 civilians. That would mean 600,000 troops are needed to secure Afghanistan—fewer if part of the country is assumed to be secure already. […] Obama has raised the US total in Afghanistan from 47,000 to 68,000. McChrystal’s much-debated request is for an additional 40,000, but even that would bring the US troop total in Afghanistan to about 68 percent of the number in Iraq, a smaller country, at the peak of the surge.

This “surge” not even equal to that “surge.” The U.S. is getting into a Soviet-level occupation against a Mujaheddin insurgency — a bad precedent if there ever was one — of a country it ostensibly don’t even want to be occupying.

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.



  1. I certainly am not predicting success in Afghanistan, but the Marines actually had considerable success in counterinsurgency in the north of Vietnam. Had the Army followed their example, that misbegotten war might have had a better outcome (allow me to add that I have called Vietnam a “luxury war” that should never have been fought).

    A National Guard major’s opinion on the matter is not to be taken particularly seriously, nor is Mr. Rosen himself particularly well-versed on matters military.

    Another “generally accepted ratio for a successful counterinsurgency” is 1 soldier for every 10 insurgents. This is in fact a better measure by far than the soldier-to-civilian ratio you mention, because for the latter the circumstances of terrain, infrastructure, social cohesion, etc., also must be entered into the equation for it to make sense.

  2. To clarify: in my previous comment, when I mentioned the “north of Vietnam” I meant, of course, the northern part of South Vietnam.

  3. This really isn’t a Soviet style occupation with a Muj opposition. We don’t face an internationally backed, well equipped insurgency like the Soviets did. We don’t carpet bomb, place land mines willy nilly or use anywhere near the vicious tactics the Soviets used. And we aren’t trying to implement some radical foreign ideology.

    As for exact surge numbers, the surge worked to bring down violence in Iraq with less than the 50:1 numbers called for in FM 3-24.

    But we’ve gotten into a lot of silliness trying to make sure no one there supports the Taliban. The Taliban does not equal Al Qaeda. I remember being in villages in Ghazni Province and Paktika Province in 2007 where it was obvious that the entire village was pro-Taliban. But so what? That didn’t mean they wanted to attack the US.

    As for the the ANP, from what I saw they were like Keystone Kops, they put like 10 dudes in the bed of a pickup, AKs and RPGs pointing every which way. They run corrupt checkpoints on the main roads which hindered commerce and pissed off the population.

    The northern and western parts of the country are largely secure (which has a big impact on that 600,000 troop number) and while the Pashtun areas near PK may not be under effective control any time soon, they don’t really need to be. The US can still use various intel functions (HUMINT, SIGINT, IMINT) to hook them up with Pred strikes out of BAF and KAF as well as to help the ANA (an effective force, especially when compared to the ANP) plan operations.

    To me the biggest issue that country faces is that every village I went to had like a billion little kids running around. What are they all going to do in 15-20 years?

  4. James, dismissing the Pashtun people is a grand gesture. One thing we miss is that the Pashtuns are the majority population in Af-Pak. Yet, they have almost no political influence. In fact, a large part of the division between Afghanistan and Pakistan was a feat of British divide and conquer engineering.

    So, we’ve picked up the British mantle, we’re both cracker nations in the Middle East. Our rushing into Vietnam as the French were retreating, and now rushing into the Middle East and Asia as the British and Soviets retreated is foolish.

    Further, the bad gov’t that we support there, dictators, drug lords and puppets points the finger back at us. What does America stand for? The rights of men? The consent of the governed? When do we defend our ideals not just turf?

  5. Why this came to me today, when I actually have things to do, I dunno, but the formula I mentioned above should read “10 soldiers to every insurgent” and not the other way round.

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