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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