COIN in Afghanistan (& a small country’s role there)

I’ve recently been listening to some amazing lectures available from the Pritzker Military Library in Chicago…one can find the series of authors and historians discussing topical issues and their books on iTunes for free. An amazing resource, especially Doris Kearns Goodwin on Lincoln. Anyhow, I came across two interpretations that I was interested in and agreed with, so I thought I would transcribe them here.

First comes Ralph Peters, a retired Army officer and influential author, with a simplification of the objective of the operational technique of counterinsurgency (COIN) from 2007:

“When all the frills are stripped away, counterinsurgency warfare is about killing those who need killing, helping those who need help – and knowing the difference between the two.”

The second tidbit comes from Bing West, who recently wrote a book (2011) about the war in Afghanistan. He argues that the US has shifted it’s original focus of destroying Al Qaeda (and it’s supporting Taliban elements) to primarily armed nation-building with COIN as a secondary focus. His criticisms have heft due to his great experience there (8 long visits over a couple years). On the US conception of COIN in Afghanistan:

” Our whole new concept of COIN makes no sense. It was not what we did in Malaya, it was not what we did in Vietnam, it [is] what [we’re doing] out of the benevolence of our souls and it drives me absolutely bananas when I listen to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – who I do not believe understands the war – stand up and say ‘you can’t win this war by killing.’ Oh yes you can; that’s how you win every war.”

To add a third, William Owen (British Army) on killings role in COIN

“Using lethal force to break their collective will to endure in combat defeats any type of armed opponent in any environment. Lethal force is the most effective and efficient method of breaking collective will. As Clausewitz made clear, killing does not set forth or resist the policy, but rather removes the violent armed objectors that seek to counter it.”

Why is New Zealand in Afghanistan?

Yesterday, another NZ SAS soldier was killed in Afghanistan, prompting calls for removal of the combat-focused SAS or the entire contingent – “peacekeeping” Provincial Reconstruction Team as well as the SAS.

So why is the country in Afghanistan? In my mind, it is because it is in NZ’s “important” and “peripheral” (security, values, prosperity, and order) interests to be there. Four of its top six trading partners are there. NZ’s most important ally, Australia is committed, as well as it’s greatest “partner” (the US). ISAF is there on a legitimate UN mandate (Resolution 1386).

The intensity of the interests are relatively low, and correspondingly, so are the resources applied to those interests (in terms of blood and treasure). Without being callous, and respecting the sacrifices of these 4 mens lives, one can accurately point out that New Zealand has lost 4 total soldiers (and 4 others serving in other uniforms), and that 17 other countries of the 47 total participating, have lost more soldiers in the effort.

So NZ is not alone. For New Zealand to truly be committed to the rules-based international order and UN (as it’s national documents suggest) – it should be a part of ISAF’s broad coalition.

Owen, again, is instructive on why military (and lethal) force is necessary in Afghanistan:

“The reason that the British Army is deployed on operations in Afghanistan is because there is an armed opposition to the government of Afghanistan, collectively described as the Taliban and/or Al Qaeda. Thus, were it not for that one condition, (the armed opposition) the British Army would not be there, in any significant number. Remove the armed opposition and the need for the British Army to be deployed simply goes away.”

Lastly, on whether to slice off and bring back the SAS from Afghanistan. That would be a mistake in that it would signal either (1) NZ does not think that the SAS combat/training role is important in Afghanistan and as such is bringing it home, or (2) NZ does think that, although the SAS role is important, society is unwilling to sanction such violence in NZ’s name. Either justification would be bad for NZ’s global reputation.

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.

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