The unsustainable theory of ‘counter- insurgency warfare’ in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Nov 30, 2020

Australia’s disastrous military campaign in Afghanistan has been based on the so-called strategy of ‘counter-insurgency warfare’ – COIN in the military vernacular. Yet for decades, COIN demonstrably has been an intellectually unsustainable theory.

COIN proponents shouldn’t escape attention when the final invoice for this shameful episode is presented.

Fall-out from the Afghanistan war crimes investigation will stain the Australian Army for years. The spotlight of blame very quickly has increased its glare to illuminate not only the privates, NCOs and junior officers directly involved, but also the higher commanders who failed in their leadership responsibilities. That’s as it should be.

But there’s another, pivotal element to this whole shocking business that’s gone largely unremarked. And that’s the ‘strategy’ of counter-insurgency warfare that our soldiers in Afghanistan have been supposed to execute.

For sixty years, the chorus line of soldier/scholars who populate our universities, academies, institutes and the media have been telling our politicians that we can win counter-insurgency wars, and for sixty years they’ve been wrong.

COIN has turned out to be not so much a credible plan of action as a self-serving cult.

Central to COIN operations is the theory of the three-block war, a concept that attempts to define a model by which invading forces can succeed in an unfamiliar, hostile, often residential environment. It’s noteworthy that the model grew out of the persistent failure of Western armies to cope with precisely those conditions during campaigns in Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq, Bosnia, the Gaza Strip, and the Lebanon.

The theory is that in any three contiguous residential blocks, soldiers might be required to deliver humanitarian assistance in the first, act as peacekeepers in the second, and fight a life or death combat in the third. Having established a foothold in the disputed territory, they are then expected to facilitate nation-building through the introduction of democratic institutions, free association, an open press, economic reform, and so on.

The model is an accurate enough description of the complex and challenging environment confronted by Western soldiers. The problem is finding an army capable of satisfying its demands.

At about the time of Australia’s commitment to the war in Afghanistan in 2005, ,Australia’s pre-eminent soldier/scholar, Professor Robert O’Neill  identified the qualities Western armies needed to succeed within this setting. His model described a force whose hypothetical standards stretched credibility.

COIN campaigns, he asserted, demand soldiers who can ‘substantially erode’ the cultural barriers that separate them from the people they’re trying to help. In itself that sounds sensible. But when those barriers are listed as language, religion, social mores, and a knowledge of local history, geography, institutions and economics, the theory begins to test belief. And if that weren’t enough – remembering that in many instances these same soldiers will be, properly enough, in fear of their lives – they also have to master civilian skills (for civic aid programs) and have some capacity to ‘enter into an informal exchange with indigenes’.

It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that this idealised army is based more on wishful thinking than on an objective analysis of what soldiers can, and cannot, do.

Former US Marine Corps commandant general James Conway provided a brusque assessment of the model, dismissing it as a ‘masquerade’. Armies are unsuited to this role, Conway stated, because soldiers are ‘killers’, not ‘social workers’.

Conway’s pungent commentary should not be taken as criticism of Western soldiers, who remain the best in the world – when they are doing the job for which recruitment standards, training and culture make them competent; namely, applying organised violence in the interests of the state. It should, however, be taken as criticism of those senior military officers and their academic apparatchiks who, despite sixty years of evidence to the contrary, kept telling their political masters that COIN is a valid strategy.

Exposed by the disasters of Vietnam, Iraq, and now Afghanistan, COIN has degenerated into little more than a series of hollow slogans – ‘fighting amongst the people’, ‘winning hearts and minds’, ‘the surge’, and so on.

Part of the blame must rest with our politicians, most of whom have little understanding of warfare. The perceived imperative to serve the American alliance is another favourite justification for getting involved in events they don’t comprehend. There’s also a powerful element of populism in the strident support both major parties give to our military adventures, regardless of what’s actually happening on the ground.

Nevertheless, ultimately, our political leaders rely on the ADF’s senior leadership and a range of strategists – academic, staffers, consultants – for their military-strategic advice.

It is, when you consider it, extraordinarily arrogant to think that our soldiers might engineer profound social, cultural and political change – that they might ‘win hearts and minds’ – by invading and occupying societies that mostly don’t want us there, whom we barely understand, and who hold emotionally compelling beliefs developed over thousands of years.

Almost inevitably, and in what amounted to a tacit admission that their strategy for Afghanistan was intellectually unsustainable, our generals turned (as they so often do) to the Special Forces. While no more likely to succeed than regular soldiers, their elite skills made them better equipped to survive, and so to minimise political grief (they hoped).

Federal MP and former SAS officer Andrew Hastie has related how his troops in Afghanistan were dumped into a ‘degrading war’. Our most revered combat units have been sent to prosecute a strategy that couldn’t work in a war they couldn’t win.

Proponents of the fraudulent theory of COIN shouldn’t escape attention when the final invoice for this shameful episode is presented.

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