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The Demise of COIN and the Rise of “Civilian Warfighters”

For those attuned to developments in U.S. security strategy, the release of the 2006 U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine, or “COIN”, was a big deal. The doctrine called for a shift in strategy from an emphasis on conventional warfighting to a focus on securing the population and shoring up governments in Iraq and Afghanistan. General Petraeus’s success in stabilizing Iraq was attributed to the new doctrine, but COIN hasn’t translated into security in Afghanistan as quickly as policymakers would have liked.

Theories abound as to why COIN isn’t working in Afghanistan. The country was ignored for most of the past decade while the Bush Administration concentrated on Iraq. Others say the problem is with the COIN strategy itself, which according to some, isn’t a real strategy. Still others claim that COIN might work in Afghanistan, but the need for large quantities of troops and billions of dollars in aid to stabilize the country, build up its institutions and deliver services to the Afghan people is too costly in the age of austerity.

For this reason, Robert Haddick of the Small Wars Journals says “COIN is out” and “civilian warfighters are in.” According to Haddick, the war on terror is rapidly being handed over to “intelligence officers, paramilitaries, local proxies, contractors, and special operations soldiers seconded to intelligence agencies (as was done in the bin Laden raid).” Haddick argues this approach is far cheaper than rebuilding failing states, and is producing measurable results everyday. Indeed, Haddick is just one of many that thinks its time to get rid of the resource heavy COIN doctrine.

But, COIN hasn’t been jettisoned yet, nor should it. The U.S. may not be able to afford any more nation building adventures soon, but the underlying premise of the doctrine is sound. Strengthening governance and security institutions in Afghanistan is critical to ensuring al-Qaeda is unable to reconstitute itself. And, improving the human security of the Afghan people is necessary to countering the message of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Indeed, COIN’s emphasis on making governance and security institutions work for ordinary people in some of the world’s most war torn and poverty stricken regions is not just charity. It’s critical to shoring up global security, and thus the right approach to countering terrorist organizations.

That’s why the Obama Administration’s increased emphasis on drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia as a means to conduct the war on terror is so concerning. Indeed, fiscal constraints may be driving a policy shift from the counterinsurgency approach, which emphasized good governance and public security, to a focus on killing terrorism suspects, while scaling back assistance that might improve the lives of people in fragile states and offer a powerful alternative to radicalism.

Will the “new” war on terror, conducted by drones, special operations forces, increasingly operational intelligence agencies and paramilitaries work? Ahmed Rashid, author of “Taliban” seems to think the change in tactics is problematic, and is skeptical that the drone strikes and night raids are achieving tangible results. Indeed, Rashid writes that, “Afghans now demonstrate in the streets every time a civilian is killed. In Pakistan, drone attacks have infuriated the entire population because nobody can quantify how successful they are in eliminating Al Qaeda or the Taliban.” Further, Rashid contends, anti – Americanism is flourishing in both of these countries.

The return to a focus on capturing or killing our way to victory in the war on terror should concern both the security and human rights community. The oft – quoted Rand study on “How Terrorist Groups End,” informs us that military force has only been effective in destroying a terrorist group about 7% of the time. The focus on lethal operations may be counterproductive, producing resentment, as it has already in the Af/Pak region, and spawning new recruits for al-Qaeda and affiliates.

The emphasis on lethal force should also concern human rights advocates given the inability to easily distinguish combatants from the civilian population in the Af/Pak region and more generally in irregular warfare. The U.S. defense and intelligence agencies say that drones are incredibly surgical, and civilians are rarely harmed. According to President Obama’s top counterterrorism advisor, drone strikes resulted in zero civilian casualties last year, an assertion that is widely disputed. But, drone operators do make mistakes, and the intelligence on which attacks are premised isn’t always accurate. The concern is that a renewed emphasis on lethal force in environments where the line between combatants and the civilian population remains blurry will lead to a greater number of civilian casualties. Indeed, the U.N.’s recent announcement that May 2011 was the deadliest month for Afghan civilians suggests this is already becoming true.



Trevor Keck
Trevor Keck

Trevor Keck is currently a fellow with the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC) based in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he is researching civilian casualty issues, and advocating for policies that will better protect civilians from the conflict in Afghanistan. Trevor holds a graduate degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, at Tufts University, where he concentrated in international security and public international law, and BA in peace and conflict studies from Chapman University. Trevor's writings on this blog may or may not reflect the views of CIVIC.

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