Flipping the COIN

Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, Senior Fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies,  raises a few interesting points about counterinsurgency and counterterrorism in Afghanistan. “Counterinsurgency doctrine, or COIN,” he writes, “has captured the hearts and minds of many in the D.C. policy community. Upon close inspection, however, it becomes clear that COIN, at least as applied to Afghanistan, is built on a number of shaky assumptions.”

Hmmm, way to take a swipe at CNAS. I especially like this one:

…the COIN framework is built on the larger assumption that eliminating the Taliban and stabilizing Afghanistan is the best use of American resources in the broader effort to combat terrorism. Al Qaeda’s presence in a pre-9/11, Taliban-controlled Afghanistan has convinced many officials that a Taliban takeover would result in al Qaeda’s inevitable return to the state. But al Qaeda already has established itself in Pakistan’s semi-governed spaces. Along with Taliban and other extremist militants, the group enjoys the relative safety of these territories, where Pakistani sovereignty precludes any substantive U.S. ground force. Even if al Qaeda were to reenter Afghanistan sometime in the future, the United States would face the same basic terrorist threats that it does today. Critics will argue that Afghanistan served as a base and planning center for 9/11. True enough; but al Qaeda, in establishing a presence in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen has already developed numerous “safe havens.” In short, our overwhelming focus on Afghanistan fails to serve a more nuanced counterterrorism strategy that acknowledges the many other areas in which al Qaeda operates.

I’ve always maintained that a state-centric approach to networked transnational threats  – interventions that focus on fixing weak and failing states – is a fool’s errand. Nelson explains why pretty clearly, I think. Not that states are irrelevant; simply that the way armed non-state actors distribute their resources generally runs counter to – or more precisely flows around –  the organization of large footprint missions. 

Go read the rest.

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