Wednesday, January 9, 2008

By Request Again: COIN Operator Question

> Army Sergeant has left a new comment on your post "COIN Operator":
> 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?

Some may find this confusing, as the comment itself is not posted at this point. I cannot get to the system to approve the comment and have it posted. I'm sure I'll be able to resolve that soon, though. I am posting this via email from the FOB I am currently working out of.

Another good question... a little out of my lane, perhaps, but I'll do my best.


That's the simple answer to both questions. The fact is that there is a simple answer and then a more complex and detailed answer. There was a recent article that outlined some of the mistakes that we have made in Iraq in USA Today of all places. The article was published December 19, 2007 and was titled, "Troops at Risk, IED's in Iraq, Strategy That's Making Iraq Safer Was Snubbed For Years."

This article details the effects of having soldiers on the streets, engaging the civil population (by engaging I don't mean with their weapons systems) and providing a consistent presence. This is what was occurring at first. Later, the commanders on the ground opted for an ostensibly more secure, protective defensive posture. This had a negative impact.

There is a fair amount of COIN doctrine and successful operations that is militarily counterintuitive. It doesn't not make sense to the conventional military mind that less protected is actually more secure; but it holds true. Withdrawal into the large, well-protected FOBs actually permitted the "insurgents" freedom of manuever, permitted them to map and observe the operations conducted, and subjected our soldiers to more IED's.

We ceded the streets to the criminal elements and withdrew into fortresses. We controlled only the space that we could observe while in the FOB, and the bubble around us as we rolled. The rest was up for grabs. In a vacuum there will be some authority, legitimate or not, who will rise to fill the void.

Being that the security forces of the fledgling government of Iraq were too underdeveloped to assume the task, the many "insurgent" elements of Iraq took the lead in each area.

End result? Security setbacks and soldiers engaged more regularly with IED's. Soldier deaths increased. Civilians in their neighborhoods who cannot count on their own police and army to protect them are cowed by the force du jour.

Remember, most civilians will go along with just about anything... as long as they are mostly left alone. They will do nearly anything not to get caught in the crossfire.

In Iraq, the situation is even more complex than in Afghanistan. There are many different groups interacting with each other. In Afghanistan, we have fewer organizations, but the basic task is the same. I think that another difference is that, by and large, the average Afghan actually leans a little in the direction of the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (IRoA.) Also, there is not nearly the sectarian violence as in Iraq.

There is one large Shia group. The third largest tribe, the Hazara, are Shia while the rest of the population is Sunni. The Taliban tried to eradicate the Hazara when they were in power, but the average Afghan is uninterested in the difference. They tend to view all Muslims as Muslims. Iran has tried to stir this, and the Al Qaeda elements who remain in the area have tried to fan the flames as well. To the average Afghan, it has not made a difference. It is an irrelevant issue.

In Iraq; again... not my area of expertise, it will still hold true that the real aim is to separate the insurgent from the population and make him irrelevant. David Galula, in his primer on counterinsurgency, "Counterinsurgency Warfare; Theory and Practice," described the insurgents as fish, and the people as the water in which the fish swims. You must either remove the fish from the water, or you must poison the water in which they swim.

Kinetic operations seek to separate the fish physically from the water. You could describe various operations as fishing with a hook, and others as fishing with a net; but the end result is the same. You seek to physically pull the fish from the water.

COIN operations such as mentoring operations seek to poison the water in which the fish swim. Regardless of the environment, the principles remain the same.

In each environment, we see effective COIN operations and we see ineffective COIN operations. It is basically a function of the local senior leadership. In areas where we see great progress, you will find a master counterinsurgent operating. In areas where we see either no progress or backsliding, you will find a poor counterinsurgent operating.

My point, overall, is that we need to become an Army of counterinsurgents. Galula's book included case studies of two armies, each engaged in a similar counterinsurgency fight. One won, one lost. The winner was the British Army in Malaya. The loser was the United States Army in Viet Nam. One became an agile, learning organization, while the other remained a rigid, immobile, recalcitrant organization who did not adapt and learn.

We have a great number of leaders in the United States Army who are agile learners, but we are still not there. I have seen both in Afghanistan, and we have certainly seen both in Iraq. I have seen it at the small unit level, and I have seen it at the senior level as well.

This war, and it is ONE war to my mind, is a counterinsurgency. The local flavor may be different, but it is like the difference between a MacIntosh and a Golden Delicious, not the difference between an apple and an orange. We became experts in AirLand Battle doctrine, the best example of which was the defeat in detail of the world's fourth largest army in 100 hours.

The United States Army was the most proficient, most lethal army in the world using that doctrine. The evidence is indisputable.

We have not demonstrated the same thing with COIN. We are hit and miss at best; but it is imperative, to this lowly senior NCO, that we become as expert in COIN as we were at AirLand doctine. They are two completely different animals. The question is twofold; can you teach an old dog new tricks or; once trained, can we learn nothing else?

I hope that I anwered your question well.


  1. Seems that COIN is what the police forces in major cities do..patrol the streets and keep the bad guys on the run. Maybe it will work in Iraq..I don't claim to be the expert and I retired many years ago.

    I am not sure if war is different now or it is just that our leaders want to fight war differently. I was taught and still believe that if a war is worth fighting it is worth winning and when a country is invaded EVERYONE in that country must be considered part of the enemy. I believe that war must be fought until one side or the other totally capitulates..unconditional surrender is the only way to insure that you don't have to fight the same people again...and even then if you allow them to rearm you might well have to fight them again.

    I hope that the COIN effort is successful but I have doubts that there will ever be peace in Iraq. Historically the people there have never been able to govern themselves and have been governed only by a "strong man" rule and I suspect that is still the case.

  2. The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the - Web Reconnaissance for 01/09/2008 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the check back often.

  3. I am very much behind on my reading, my posting, my emailing, etc.... but wanted to let you know that I linked to your blog a while back for your A+ tutorials on the ins and outs of Afghanistan. Keep up the good work, and stay safe!


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