Flip a COIN

With the apparent (and horrifically bloody) demise of the Tamil Tigers it’s worth I think reviewing the context of this whole counterinsurgency debate.  Basically as Nir Rosen says there are two schools of counterinsurgency.

1. (practiced by US & Allies) The population-centric school of COIN.  Think Gen. Petraeus, David Kilcullen, Andrew ExumJohn Nagl, et. al.

2. what Rosen calls the Russian approach:  go in and absolutely obliterate the enemy and any civilians who happen to be in the way.  Usually followed by installing a ruthless strongman dictator in the wake of the destruction.  Called The Russian Approach after the Russian campaign in Chechnya.

The Sinhalese of course practiced most awfully the second approach.  They took no account of Tamil civilian life, of trying to separate insurgents out from the population.  It was blank check, open season on anyone, anywhere.

School #1 generally points to The British campaign in Malaya as proof of the success of their philosophy.  This case is as Fabius Maximus has it, much grayer.

Generally, the dirty little (god-awful) secret is that COIN Style #2 is typically more successful.

Mercifully, whatever Neo-Marxist anti-imperialist tirades still exist, the US is not as evil as to practice #2.  Even the British in Malaya and Kenya during the Mau Mau Revolt publicly hung criminals.   [This is not an apology for US torture/rendition programs since 9/11, only that in relation it could even be worse than the horrific it already is].

The “success” of COIN style #2 (The Russian style) highlights a question as to the viability of #1. As I said yesterday in my piece on the Mafia-Taliban, the FATA of Af-Pak is the Wild West of the US 19th century–an analogy specifically used by Thomas PM Barnett.  Victory there, in US history, was more Russian style #2 COIN:  in short ethnic cleansing of the unwanteds.

School #1 might point to Iraq as an example of their COIN successfully being implemented.  But that I think would be a mistake in large measure.  The success of the counterinsurgency in Iraq was basically a factor of buying-0ff the Sunni insurgency.  The so-called al-Qaeda in Iraq threat was nothing more than a small (but at certain points lethal) group of non-Sunni Iraqis (mostly non Iraqi Arabs) who the Sunni insurgency used as long as they had a common enemy, but the second the US started paying them off had no reason to stay aligned with the wacko Caliphate seekers, and took care of business.

What the “surge” element (i.e. adding more US troops) actually did do is allow the Shia Army and the soft-rising dictatorship of Nouri al-Maliki to clamp down on their domestic rivals (i.e. Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and The Mehdi Army).  It also consolidated the Shia victory of Iraq and will keep the Sunnis for a long time to come (if not forever) in an oppressed, economically marginal area lacking in development.

It could be argued that the US backwards stumbled into a de facto slow-motion COIN #2 in Iraq–with the non-COIN that was practiced in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Baath dictatorship, the Shia cleansed Baghdad of Sunnis and essentially won the war.  Maybe it’s more like COIN 1.5 I suppose.

This explains why even Gen. Petraeus admits Afghanistan/Pakistan is not Iraq.  The Taliban are not like al-Qaeda in Iraq.  They are locals first off.  They have much deeper roots in the Pashtun community and cannot be so easily ejected as was AQI.  And while undoubtedly The Taliban are extremely violent (even psychotically so at points) and terrorize their own populace (Mafia-style), there is a strong anti-occupation history in that region.  Not to mention that the US cannot bring troops into at least half of the equation–i.e. the Pakistani side.  Nor do they have anywhere near the number of troops in Afghanistan that we do in Iraq.

Speaking of COIN 1.5s, with President Obama meeting with Israeli PM Netanyahu and questions about the Peace Process (or lack thereof) being possibly restarted, what about the Israelis?  Well contrary to a kind of analysis that calls the Israelis Neo-Fascists or whatever, they have not practiced full-on Russian style (#2) COIN.  Not consistently.  What they have done is what Barnett calls “It Takes a Tank to Raze a Village”.  Namely they go in heavy, blow stuff up, and then leave.  Like just happened recently with their incursion into Gaza.  It’s like their foreign policy is run by multiple voices in their head.  Like The Powell Doctrine on meth.

Another dirty (horrible) secret is that the Israelis could wipe out the Palestinians, Chechnyian style.  Or now sadly Tamil-style.  The Arab countries would holler and moan, Hezbollah would launch some devastating attacks, but it would happen.  That window of such regional dominance however is fast closing as Iran comes closer and closer to near-power status with Israel.  Or at least de facto deterrence if not actual nuclear weapon deterrence.  Netanyahu (and before him Olmert) wanted attacks on Iran to keep that flickering candle alive as long as possible.   Until Israel has an actual competitor in the neighborhood, then the Peace Process has no real chance I think. Not because the Israelis are inherently evil. And hear the realist (cynic?) in me speaks:  but because they are just like everybody else.  They won’t deal until they are threatened existentially.

Which brings us back to the Palestinians and COIN style #2. Where the ‘a’ word (apartheid) or the ‘e-c’ word comes up (ethnic cleansing) is regarding their Accidental Empire.  The “settlements” (notice the 19th century Wild West frontier analogy again) in other words.  The Israeli military outposts in the Westk Bank are “population-centric” no doubt, just not in the way the advocates of school 1 would approve.  But the economic squeeze on Gaza and the system of blocked territory in the West Bank could be seen as a slow burn version of the Checnyian experience.  Hence the 1.5.

It is at this point that I confess to my general skepticism of the effectiveness of style 1 and my revulsion at style 2.

Better, if any such interventions are to be undertaken (as I imagine they inevitably will), would be to have the force follow in on the backside of the war phase.  The example of Bosnia and Kosovo are perhaps the only examples of this done more or less successfully.  Otherwise you have invasions with no followup just destruction (see every Israeli incursion since 1980) and potentially leaving at the first real violence experienced on your side (see US in Haiti, Somalia 90s), which creates a backswing against any such incursions leading genocides that could have easily been prevented (see Rwanda), which then to look tough you try to overcome by going in and staying but having no plan or structural effective force and then bleed out over a long period (see Iraq, Afghanistan). And when that doesn’t work you just then use your Air Force to try to kill the bad guys from the sky to hugely negative effect (see Israeli war against Hezbollah 2006 and US predator drones in Pakistan.)

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14 thoughts on “Flip a COIN

  1. Good discussion of the topic. COIN is just brutally hard and risky and the neo-con’s have never wanted to see or understand that.

    The only issue i had with this is, you don’t really discuss how success is defined which is always difficult in COIN situations. Democracy? Dead bad guys? Our own dictator? And what are the long term consequences of a successful COIN? While COIN can be won, sometimes, does that set up problems 20, 30, 40 years down the road. It is easy to find situations where empires were maintained in the short term, which just led to a worse break up down the road. It is not clear to me that a COIN situation is often worth the cost of fighting, given the risks and costs.

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  2. g,

    I’m not sure the theorists themselves really grasp what success is. The only one I’ve seen is something more like Thomas Barnett’s idea of having a huge followup reconstruction/peace force to the initial invasion and then ideally you don’t have to do much counterinsurgency. They talk about a certain ratio of soldiers/civilian population that basically guarantees no major outbreaks of violence. I can’t seem to find the number right now. But in Bosnia/Kosovo it was in effect and held (with scary moments to be sure but basically held) whereas in both Iraq and Afghanistan the number necessary for the peacekeeping force would have had to be in the Iraqi case something like 300,000-400,000 (as Gen. Shinseki said). Even higher in Afghanistan.

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  3. One additional point: even if the “more rubble, less trouble” school of thought is right, I doubt we have the public appetite for a full-bore campaign of extermination. The half-measures that inevitably follow from this public constraint are probably the worst possible approach to counter-insurgency.

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  4. LAnother dirty (horrible) secret is that the Israelis could wipe out the Palestinians, Chechnyian style. Or now sadly Tamil-style. The Arab countries would holler and moan, Hezbollah would launch some devastating attacks, but it would happen.

    That is probably my greatest fear when it comes to the Middle East; and judging from the approach they took to Gaza, it seems far from unlikely.

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  5. Actually, it’s immensely unlikely. & I don’t mean that as a matter of mentality (the Israeli government clearly doesn’t give a fuck about Arab deaths), but one of logistics. They can’t use nuclear weapons that close to Israel proper & killing over a million people with conventional arms is a lot harder task than you’d imagine.

    Consider Berlin – the RAF leveled the place, then fire-bombed the rubble. Everyone inside the city did not die. Indeed it wasn’t even a second Dresden – not enough incendiaries. There’s not actually a massive amount that the Israelis can do with the Gazans save, well…Drive them into the sea. Now wouldn’t that be a sick little twist?

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  6. I fear that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict will end only with genocide.

    If the Palestinians are on the receiving end, I’m guessing that it will result in even more friction in the region that will end only with genocide.

    If the Israelis are on the receiving end, we’ll see a handful of essays about how Israel should have seen this coming and lists of things they could have done to avoid this situation. The Palestinians will be dropped as a cause soon after and the Palestinians will be about as well off as Zimbabwe a little bit after that. If this is noticed at all, it will be to compare Israel to Ian Smith.

    This theory of mine is why I sort of support the status quo. All of the other realistic options strike me as worse than what we have now.

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  7. James,

    I won’t argue there weren’t horrendous atrocities in Fallujah. The US Army sorta gave a non-denial denial on white phosphorous as I recall. Still I don’t think it’s the same as the Russia-Chechnyian example. It might not matter in the end, it’s all so horrible. But I think at least conceptually (which matters for something however little in comparison to the tragedy) they are different.

    The US experience in Iraq from 2003-2006 was something of a no plan, put a bunch of young kids in areas they aren’t ready to deal with it, they get spooked, watch them say fire on a crowd (as in Fallujah) and then sparks fly, some soldiers get killed and the US military responds with lethal force.

    It’s a naive kind of brutality not one pre-planned and systematically, Machiavelli-style ruthless like a Putin.

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  8. Jay-b, James, and Kat,

    The Russian example in Chechnya or the Sinhalese to the Tamil do not require actual full genocide. It requires beating them until they have no will left to fight. It means totally obliterating the enemy (and whole mass of the population with them but by no means all). So maybe my wording is too loose.

    Could the Israelis completely eradicate the Palestinian opposition? In some ways I think yes, though they would never be able to follow it up Chechnya style with the imposition of a Israeli puppet strongman-dictator from among the Palestinian population.

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  9. I won’t argue there weren’t horrendous atrocities in Fallujah. The US Army sorta gave a non-denial denial on white phosphorous as I recall. Still I don’t think it’s the same as the Russia-Chechnyian example. It might not matter in the end, it’s all so horrible. But I think at least conceptually (which matters for something however little in comparison to the tragedy) they are different.

    Actually, the US treatment of Fallujah was very systematic. It was immensely similar to the Russian treatment, as well as the Israeli treatment of Gaza, in a number of ways: chief among them the assertion that all males between a certain age were instantly assumed terrorists.

    Worth reading is this:
    http://leninology.blogspot.com/2005/01/fallujah.html
    & this:
    http://leninology.blogspot.com/2008/06/fallujahs-legacy.html
    Grisly but necessary:
    http://leninology.blogspot.com/2004/11/fallujah-and-right-to-life.html

    Yes, I’d suppose this is all the writings of one of those dreaded “neo-marxists”. But the fact remains that the plan for Fallujah was to bomb it heavily, prevent any male youths to middle aged men from leaving, then attack on the ground under the assumption that anyone left inside was a terrorist (including, of course, all those innocent men you prevented from leaving).

    That’s a systematic attempt. planned and scheduled and executed with consummate brutality. It’s not some random flailing of a blind superpower that “Just happened” any more than the soldiers in those Abu Graid photos were fratboys letting off some steam. If it’s somehow distinguishable from the Russian School I don’t see how.

    & no, it wasn’t their plan for everywhere. Unlike in Chechnya. But this specific incident is what it is. & that’s a war crime.

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  10. “Actually, the US treatment of Fallujah was very systematic. ”

    Yes, but where it differed form the “Russian Method” is that where the Russian Method flattens the whole population indiscrimately and alienates it, the Falluja campaign targeted a specific sliver of the population , namely Falluja, and did the opposite of alienting the population. If I remember correctly, the Sunii awakening began soon after, perhaps because Sunnis saw that the US could was willing to be bad-ass enough to be a half-way reliable protector.

    I can be convinced it was a war crime. Then again, not hitting Falluja would also have been a war crime, since an occupying power is responsible for security in its territory, and Falluja was the source of a lot of the violence against civilians in that region.

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  11. Yes, but where it differed form the “Russian Method” is that where the Russian Method flattens the whole population indiscrimately and alienates it, the Falluja campaign targeted a specific sliver of the population , namely Falluja, and did the opposite of alienting the population. If I remember correctly, the Sunii awakening began soon after, perhaps because Sunnis saw that the US could was willing to be bad-ass enough to be a half-way reliable protector.

    So they called the entire population of Fallujah who:

    a) Had a penis
    &
    b) Were between teenage and elderly

    a terrorist & this doesn’t count as indiscriminate? You have a very, very lapse grasp of the word.

    I can be convinced it was a war crime. Then again, not hitting Falluja would also have been a war crime, since an occupying power is responsible for security in its territory, and Falluja was the source of a lot of the violence against civilians in that region.

    FFS. The attacks were coming from the civilians. It was a civilian resistance against an occupying force. There wasn’t an army left, that had been long since defeated. It was a civilian insurgency. They should have fucked off altogether, because they were clearly unwanted. Instead they decided to go on a killing spree and hundreds of people who probably weren’t even involved ended up dead.

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