Sunday, December 23, 2007

COIN Operator

I was whelped as an Infantryman during the Cold War. For the past nearly 26 years, I have trained as a combat arms soldier, all but a short few of them as an NCO. Over half of my career has been spent as a senior NCO. I have always been a conventional warrior. The Cold War, had it gone hot, would have been a conventional struggle of epic proportions.

Thankfully, that did not happen.

The war that did happen even as the Cold War died a whimpering, twitching death was a conventional struggle of briefly epic proportions. It was an armored clash that rivaled the largest tank battles in history.

Ever since Desert Storm, everything that we have done has been unconventional. The struggle that we find ourselves engaged in is an insurgency. I find myself involved in a counterinsurgency fight in Afghanistan. My brothers find themselves in a multi-faceted counterinsurgency fight in Iraq. Whether you choose to believe it or not, we are involved in a global Fundamentalist Islamic counterinsurgency. Some call it Islamofascism.

Warriors expect to fight. We expect to close with, engage, and destroy the enemy. We have an image of what a warrior is, and what we're supposed to do.

Counterinsurgency, or COIN, is different. The most effective parts of the COIN fight do not involve tracking down armed insurgents and killing them. The Police mission especially, which is not the mission that I volunteered for, is a different fight altogether. Just to be clear, pretty much none of us volunteered to be ANP mentors. We were pulled away from our chosen courses and set upon a new one. Being obedient soldiers, we took up our new mission and moved out.

To establish the confusion even more deeply, the ANP look a lot like a light infantry unit... they carry AK-47's, PKM belt-fed machine guns, and RPG's. The coalition forces have a tendency to use them like light infantry to augment their own forces.

I suppose that's some kind of progress. Two years ago, the ANP were getting shot up on a regular basis by coalition forces.

The thing about being a warrior is that we have this image of warfighting, an image that was established and reinforced over many years of training. But what we are doing as mentors here is warfighting on a whole 'nother level. Our job, especially with the Police, is not as much killing the enemy as making him irrelevant.

We do that by separating him from the populace. Most people here (most people anywhere) don't care who is in charge. They just want to be left alone. They want to be left in peace to raise their families. On each end of the spectrum there exist people who actively support one cause or the other, but the vast majority really just want to be left alone. They are swayed by a number of things to lean one way or another.

Some of these things are universal. Whoever provides the most secure environment for them to raise their family will earn points. Whoever provides basic infrastructure to ease their lives. Whoever provides a framework for basic services, such as water, electricity, roads, and education. Whoever provides a framework for advanced services, such as health care. The side that accomplishes these things will hold more sway.

Some of these things are discrete to the culture that exists. In Afghanistan, as in any Islamic culture, the religious ramifications hold sway as well. Religion is woven into the fabric of daily lives here. The side which holds the moral high ground gains a lot of legitimacy, even at the expense of the provision of services.

We in the United States live with the benefits of an irrelevant enemy. There are those who would happily change our government. There are those who, for either political or criminal reasons, attempt to subvert our government in large and small ways. Going by the definition that is in play in Afghanistan; that being that drug lords are insurgents, we can apply this to our culture. Drug lords are insurgents. They operate an enterprise as if it were a business, as if our government does not exist, except as a danger to their business.

They seek to subvert our governmental agencies by recruiting insurgents within the governmental framework; for instance, paying police to look the other way. They employ their own militias; hence, drive-by shootings and turf wars. They do, in places, operate as a shadow government. They hold sway in tiny areas that police cannot fully control.

But they are, for the most part, irrelevant. They do not have any place close to the capability to sway large portions of the population, nor of gaining popular support on anywhere near the scale that would be required to force political instability or the disruption of services by the legitimate government.

The same goes for the various elements that would forcibly change our society in the political arena. The white supremacists of the Idaho outback are, for most of us, irrelevant. They may irritate us, and we may abhor them, but neo-Nazis are not a threat to the everyday peace and security of my children. Neo-Nazis are irrelevant.

The armed persons on our streets are in our own employ. We the People, through our trusted agents whom we elect, hire, train, field, and discipline Police officers who enforce the irrelevance of criminals and political nutcases. This is not to say that these people cannot affect individuals, but they cannot, as a rule, affect everyone.

Our real job here in Afghanistan is to cause the anti-government militias to become irrelevant. If the Taliban cannot sway the people, and if they cannot walk around openly to intimidate the people and attempt to exert their shadow government over the population, then they become irrelevant. If they sit in their compounds outside the bounds of everyday society, if they make their proclamations and rant about this and that but cannot inflict themselves upon their neighbors, they have become irrelevant.

There are myriad problems that face the establishment of law and order and the general development of the Afghan National Police. We are working on these issues with various degrees of success. We, imperfect people faced with massive deficiencies to correct, make progress sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. We sometimes come up with failed plans and policies. We make mistakes.

But our primary job is to influence, massage, mentor, and improve. For a warrior who has trained for over two and a half decades that the preferred method for making your enemy irrelevant is to render him inert, it is a mental leap of Olympic proportions to shift to causing irrelevance via mentorship.

The secondary method for the COIN operator is to cause irrelevance through the forceful application of the dirt nap; inertia being provided by the added weight of six feet of earth.

As COIN operators, if we are actively hunting Taliban, then we are probably not doing what is most effective. If our ANP are being mentored, and are doing their jobs, they are keeping the villages secure. Secure villages will be unwelcoming places for the Taliban, who will bypass them. In that village, the Taliban are irrelevant. They have ceased to be an influence except for those who support them actively.

This does have a tendency to produce the expulsive urinary reflex in the newly irrelevant political excludee. It pisses him off. So the first sign that you are doing the right thing is often that you are shot at more vigorously.

If you are not pissing off your enemy, you are irrelevant to him; and therefore he only shoots at you for sport, if at all. This is probably the biggest reason that many of the Mujahid are sitting this one out; we are not doing things that are objectionable to him. He has no stake in our loss.

When our enemies are experiencing the expulsive urinary reflex, that's when all of those warrior instincts and training will come into play.

The hardest part of being a COIN operator is getting past that mindset that tells us that if we are not busily slaying our enemies, we aren't doing our jobs. But the most cursory examination of successful insurgencies reveals that the counterinsurgents were too busy trying to kinetically silence the insurgent to accomplish the task of rendering him irrelevant.

First, we have to define what our real goal is with the group that we are mentoring. With the ANA, we are working on building a culture of warfighters. With the ANP, we are trying to build a culture of ethical law enforcement. We must ask ourselves, when planning missions with the ANP, "Is this an ANP mission? Does this accomplish the tasks of local security, local rule of law, or local government legitimacy?"

If the answer is no, then we need to examine what we are doing. It's probably not the right thing.

The ANP are the key, at the local level and at each local level, to winning the COIN fight and therefore the war in Afghanistan. When the guy with the gun walking around in each village is an ANP, and life with armed ANP walking around the neighborhood is better than life with armed Taliban roaming the streets, then we will have won.

The Taliban will be irrelevant.


  1. Blue, I have couple of questions, if you don't mind giving a government lesson. What is the set up of their local government? Who do your ANP officers report to? And how does all of this work with a culture that is traditionally tribal? Thanks for writting such great posts, stay safe and keep up the good work.


  2. Blue

    Thanks for writing a great blog, and doing the good work, I have been reading your blog for couple of months.
    Have a great new year.

    Fazal Khan from USA

  3. Dear 'Old Blue',

    This is a fantastic article! Thank you for the insights. Please be careful. I will continue to pray for your safety and other things. Have a good night.

  4. Blue, I'm coming out of lurkdom to say that is one of the best explanations of the current Situation in Afghanistan. Thanks for the all your posts, I really learn alot from them.

  5. This is an amazing explanation of the Afghanistan situation. My only question is: this seems like a great common-sense explanation, especially given your USA metaphor. Would it work for Iraq, in your estimation? And does the fact that we're not using that model hurt us?


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