COIN: A Thought Experiment

Amongst military affairs wonks, debates about COIN continue. I don’t know enough to participate. But in the years since 9/11 every statement by any policy-maker or pundit ended with an exhortation to “win the war of ideas” but without any clue as to how it should be done. As the US found itself pulled into nation-building these same policy-makers and pundits talked about “winning hearts and minds” and embracing counter-insurgency. Thanks to brilliant folks like David Kilcullen and his eminently readable Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency lots of people thought they had a handle on what this meant and could toss around the lingo. But I was struck by a review of COIN literature by SAIS professor Eliot Cohen in which he wrote:

However, a senior official slinging COIN argot (“oil spot tactics,” “combined action platoons” and the like) at meetings far from the fight is one thing. An infantry captain plunked down in the mountains of Nurestan, figuring out how to control rugged terrain with a few American platoons, a larger force of questionable Afghan soldiers and police, and a mistrustful, war-weary population is something very different. With counterinsurgency, as with all military matters, implementing doctrine proves much more difficult than discussing it….

In every such war, the counterinsurgents learn the need for local knowledge: language first, and from it, all they can discover about authority structures, grievances, customs and local politics. The broad principles melt away because, as one colonel told me in 2008 while flying over eastern Afghanistan, the counterinsurgent soon realizes that “it’s a valley-by-valley war.”

The kind of specific knowledge needed does not lend itself to treatises, much less bestsellers.

….Making COIN work in real time, therefore, requires the right kinds of practitioners, vast patience and local knowledge of a kind that is difficult to build up and easily perishable in large organizations.

Cohen’s review inspired a little thought experiment that helped place the challenge of COIN into terms that I (a regular suburban guy) could relate to.

I am involved with my synagogue, volunteering, sitting on committees etc. (In a reduced version of COIN, civil society too is awesome in theory but in practice means lots of going to meeting and scutwork.) My particular preferred flavor of Judaism is the Conservative movement. For fun, let us imagine that the Reform movement has decided to “takeover” the Conservative movement. To do so they dispatch extremely charming and hardworking individuals – missionaries – to get involved with a targeted synagogue and try to convert it.

This individual has lots of energy and charm and a modest budget. Enough to make substantial donations, but not enough to simply buy off the place (say paying off the mortgage or completely renovating the building.) The missionary has two years to accomplish the conversion.

The truth is, getting involved in a synagogue is not that hard. There are almost always committees that could use volunteers. Our missionary throws himself into this task with great energy, sets about identifying key sources of influence within the synagogue, befriending them and influencing them. Would the missionary succeed in two years? The answer would depend on innumerable variables, including the charm and talent of the missionary and the receptivity of the individuals approached and the institution as a whole (in general such organizations are conservative about change and prefer the status quo.)

It is safe to say that success would be possible, but not easy and require enormous efforts by the missionary. These efforts would include hours of committee meetings, envelope stuffing, small talk, and everything else that keep an organization going. It would be a full-time job, with no guarantee of success.

However, the theological and ritual gaps between Conservative and Reform Judaism are modest. Our missionary is working in a language and culture with which he (or she) has tremendous familiarity and there is no active opposition. Identifying and reaching key nodes of influence, perhaps the single most essential task, is relatively easy (it’s called networking.)

Imagine if the missionary had to operate in an unfamiliar language and culture that was actively and dramatically averse to his proposals, and there was an active opposition that was shooting at the missionary and murdering people who allied themselves with him.

That is what we are asking service people to do in Afghanistan and what they tried to do in Iraq. This is not to say that it is not a worthy mission, only that the task is extraordinarily difficult.

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