- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Col. Robert Killebrew, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Best Defense department of doctrinal affairs
Is counterinsurgency dead? As U.S. combat forces have withdrawn from Iraq and are scheduled to leave Afghanistan in 2014 — just twenty-four months from now — various defense thinkers and publications have declared the U.S. involvement in counterinsurgency (COIN) over. Actually, nothing could be further from reality. The real story is that COIN is still very much alive, in Iraq, the Philippines, Colombia and a dozen other places where the U.S. still has interests and that, in Afghanistan at particular, the United States is moving, finally, into true counterinsurgency.
Over the past nine years Americans, and particularly the American government, have gotten a picture of a sort of COIN-influenced military operation conflated with pictures of U.S. troops spilling out of armored vehicles or patrolling, grim-faced, through insurgent areas. But in fact, the "geometry" of real "counterinsurgency" is between an indigenous government and locals trying to overthrow or weaken it. When outside troops enter the fight, as we have done successfully in many more theaters than just Iraq and Afghanistan, they risk becoming the third party in what is essentially a family feud. Practical COIN, as practiced by the United States, is to support the local combat forces, not to carry the fight ourselves. The employment of American combat power, which is generally overwhelming, risks "stealing the oxygen" from the essential relationship between a local government and the insurgents who are fighting it. It may be necessary for one of our troops to shoot an insurgent from the next village, but killing somebody’s cousin isn’t going to make either us or the local government loved. If there ever was a doubt, look at the celebrations breaking out in Iraq with our departure.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, the destruction of both governments made it necessary for us to take on major combat roles while we rebuilt the security forces. While the performance of our troops was superb, our initial effort to re-form both the Iraqi and Afghan armies was grudging, too limited and far too slow. In our we’ll-do-it culture, we forgot that so long as U.S. forces are carrying the bulk of the fighting in somebody else’s insurgency, we are delaying the time when the host government starts fighting the "real" COIN campaign and we provide assistance and support, which is the Americans’ real role in COIN.
Iraq is over (or paused) for us, and the Iraqi government will now fight its own insurgents unaided. In Afghanistan, by 2014 we will shift from the current U.S. (or NATO) troop-centered conflict to a true COIN campaign of assistance to Afghan forces. What this means is that Afghan forces do the fighting, helped by small American advisory teams embedded in Afghan units, living and fighting alongside Afghan troops, and backed up by U.S. airpower and logistics. This is not new to us – -we know how to do COIN. U.S. advisors have worked alongside and supported local troops for decades, starting as far back in our frontier days and lately in Vietnam, El Salvador, Colombia, the Philippines and elsewhere. In Colombia, a success story, a Colombian general complimented the U.S. for getting it right and "letting us fight our own war." In Afghanistan, U.S. Special Forces troops have been living with the Afghan army in Afghan uniforms, previewing what we must be doing by 2014.
Whether the Administration, the Defense Department and the services have the stomach for such a shift to the actual prosecution of a COIN effort is an open question. Our commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, is calling for a shift to an advisor-focused effort by 2014, which means many more combat-experienced NCOs, captains and majors for duties in Afghanistan instead of in battalions and brigades back in the U.S., which will delay "reset" by the Army and Marines. But if our Afghan allies are to prevail in their war and preserve their country, that’s what it’s going to take. We are reaching the end of our domination of the war in Afghanistan; the real COIN campaign is about to begin.