To me, Afghanistan is perhaps the most intellectually exciting conflict that there has been for a while now. It captures all the problems of warfare in the 21st Century, as well as being the sum total of decades of internal conflict and great power politics. The downside to this complexity is figuring out a solution. ‘In Afghanistan, things are rarely as they seem,’ General McChrystal said last October. ‘If you pull the lever, the outcome is not what you have been programmed to think.’ This is why I’m open to new ideas about the war, as I’ve written about here and here; but they need to be plausible and intellectually creative. Anti-war people tend to offer the least plausible and most dull ideas, however. Michael Cohen’s latest article, ‘Tossing the Afghan COIN’, doesn’t buck the trend. It is a classic example of the Left cutting off its nose to spite its face.
Cohen spends a lot of time rubbishing the idea population-centric counterinsurgency can be successfully applied in Afghanistan. To start, we need a competent and legitimate government, which we obviously don’t have in Kabul. ‘Making matters more difficult is the continued presence of undisturbed Afghan Taliban safe havens across the border in Pakistan.’ Afghanistan is a ‘nonpermissive environment’ for P-COIN, Cohen decides. He has made a familiar mistake here in thinking P-COIN is a strategy and not an operational doctrine; something the historian Hew Strachan discussed in a brilliant essay recently. Yes, counterinsurgencies cannot succeed if the host government is ineffective and the enemy has sanctuaries in a neighbouring country. That is not the fault of General Petraeus, however, and it is not his responsibility to deal with. Population-centric counterinsurgency is the best operational model for Afghanistan, which is why the military pushes for it; if our effort is failing at the strategic level, the fault lies with President Obama, Secretary Clinton and the late Ambassador Holbrooke. Cohen ought to censure them.
His article is poor when it comes to counterinsurgency doctrine applied operationally in Afghanistan. Cohen states that Petraeus has adopted a more violent approach against the Taliban since June because P-COIN, as practiced by McChrystal, failed to deliver – in Marjah, for example. But Operation Moshtarak didn’t disprove it, as one sees reading Professor Theo Farrell’s RUSI study. There has been considerable progress in Nad-e-Ali because the British had had a long time to prepare the ground there politically; a luxury the U.S. Marines did not have. One can thus argue Marjah affirms a key aspect of P-COIN: the importance of taking your time. ‘Failure to incorporate [time] into counterinsurgency campaign planning,’ writes Austin Long, ‘will ultimately doom the effort.’ I also think Cohen makes a false distinction between McChrystal and Petraeus. He assumes McChrystal – an acclaimed Special Forces leader – didn’t use violence. One might point to the high tempo of SF operations in Kandahar under Petraeus, but it happened in Helmand before Moshtarak. Conversely, Petraeus has kept the rules of engagement issued by McChrystal largely intact. There is little difference between the two commanders operationally; Cohen sees differences because he has a pundit’s understanding of violence in P-COIN doctrine.
Of course, Cohen is not trying to offer a serious critique of population-centric counterinsurgency in his article. He simply wants to drawdown from Afghanistan and will rubbish anything that gets in the way, which, since 2008/9, has been P-COIN. This is evident from his other criticisms of the doctrine. ‘The history of COIN is a depressing and unremitting tale of coercion and violence generally aimed not just at armed insurgents but at civilian populations as well’, he says. Petraeus and John Nagl and others gloss over these unfortunate facts and give us a sanitized version instead:
To listen to the American military or, better, to read the Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual, FM 3-24, is to hear a tale of COIN’s bloody legacy of coercion and violence magically transformed.
Now, Cohen is correct to say winning hearts and minds is not key to defeating an insurgency. As Patrick Porter points out in his book Military Orientalism, history has left us with the uncomfortable insight that ‘occupations of brutality can succeed.’ The problem with Cohen making this point is that it begs the question: would he rather have the United States brutalising Afghans intentionally? Like similar pieces from the Left, his article tries to ‘out real’ the realists, but, in doing so, Cohen cuts off his nose to spite his face. It is both absurd and grotesque.