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The "Lone Guerrilla Paradox" and the Failure of COIN Doctrine in Afghanistan

The New York Times runs a story today from reporter Rod Nordland in Kandahar about the shift in strategy there away from a military headlined offensive to more aid and reconstruction efforts, with a gradual increase in coalition constables walking the streets.

Partly this is due to local opposition to a military offensive by an “unsympathetic population.” The other major reason, according to the NYT, is the realization among the ISAF command that the much ballyhooed “Operation Moshtarak Phase II,” the Marine Corps air and ground assault on Marja in February, failed.

In a briefing to Pentagon reporters last month, Afghan commander Gen. Stanly McChrystal gave his assessment of the Marja offensive:

“As a counterinsurgency force pushes out insurgents, their smart move is to contest that, to try to undermine what we've done. They can't come in and control Marja like they did before. They can't raise the flag; they can't hold terrain. But they can try to convince the people that they're not secure: Murders, night letters, taxation. And they can try to send a message that says, "This won't last. The coalition will leave. The government of Afghanistan will leave."
Then McChrystal described the current security environment in Kandahar:

“[The Taliban] certainly do not control Kandahar city. They can contest parts of Kandahar city and they can create acts so there's not sufficient security in Kandahar city, but the Taliban do not control the city. You know, you can walk around the streets in Kandahar and there's business going on. It's a functioning city.”

These are surprising statements coming from somebody as well versed in counterinsurgency as McChrystal. Insurgents don’t typically “raise the flag,” except perhaps in the final stages of an insurgency when they’ve won the political contest. As far as Kandahar is concerned, the fact that Kandahar city is "functioning" doesn't mean the insurgents don’t control Kandahar.

One of the many fatal flaws in U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine is the failure to understand the “lone guerrilla paradox,” a concept that has vexed counterinsurgents from Algeria to Vietnam to now Afghanistan.

In his excellent book, War Comes to Long An, Jeffrey Race, a U.S. Army officer who served in Vietnam, described the paradox: In a village, a single insurgent fighter represents a “monopoly of force,” controlling that village even if challenged by an entire battalion of government troops doing continuous battalion sweeps.

The only time the lone guerrilla doesn’t control the village is the few hours when the counterinsurgents sweep through, once they leave, the guerrilla’s monopoly is re-established.

-- Greg Grant

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