Democrats and Republicans, hawks and doves, foreign-policy professionals and laymen could all empathize with a strategy that, at the heart of it, was simply trying to win popular support. It was filled with the potential promise of showing the military’s soft side and demonstrating that soldiers could be culturally sensitive. Most importantly, the strategy was supposed to show Afghans that the United States and the host-nation government in Kabul could offer Afghans a better future than the Taliban ever could. The COIN strategy, in short, was all about good intentions.
Has the COIN strategy in Afghanistan worked? One way to measure the strategy’s effectiveness is by looking at the death toll of the military personnel who are implementing it. If more U.S. military personnel (the counterinsurgents who are executing the strategy) are killed after its implementation, then the battle for hearts and minds may be said to have failed.
The empirical data shows that in the first nine years of the war in Afghanistan, one thousand U.S. military personnel were killed. That same figure of one thousand killed was reached in just the past twenty-seven months after the U.S. officially adopted COIN as the strategy in Afghanistan. In other words, since the time that United States sent thirty-three thousand additional troops as part of the Afghan “surge” and issued guidance to its military forces in Afghanistan to follow the COIN strategy, the number of U.S. troops killed doubled.
The political decision to implement the COIN strategy failed to recognize that more people with more guns on foreign territory cannot win the battle for hearts and minds. COIN, for all its positives, seemed to offer too romantic a notion of what was actually achievable, especially in a large-scale military campaign such as the one that Afghanistan ultimately became. Regardless of whether new U.S. military personnel smiled more or were culturally attune or were more ethically upright or whether they now teamed up with diplomats, aid workers or anthropologists (who normally donned bullet-proof gear and carried weapons), building trust in such an environment was simply impossible.
Not all policy makers were persuaded by the utility of the COIN-based “surge” in Afghanistan. Vice President Biden expressed his doubts about the viability of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. The doubling in the number U.S. deaths since the implementation of COIN confirms Biden’s doubts.
Counterinsurgency proponents may argue that in the initial phase of a COIN-based surge strategy, there may be a natural spike in deaths (i.e. things may get worse before they get better.) But in a war that has gone on for eleven years, that argument can no longer be taken seriously, at least on political grounds.
COIN’s greatest tragedy was that it gave policy makers—who were facing difficult choices in Iraq and Afghanistan—the illusion that “victory” (or some sort of political resolution) was possible; that military power applied in a specific manner against an insurgency can lead to specific political outcomes.
In Iraq, it may have prevented a complete disaster (i.e. an all-out civil war), but it did not bring any clear strategic triumph. The ongoing COIN effort in Afghanistan may be too new to judge, but the recent data—especially the accelerating rate of U.S. casualties—seems to suggest that it has not worked either.
Henry Kissinger once wrote that “each generation is permitted only one effort of abstraction; it can attempt only one interpretation and a single experiment, for it is its own subject. This is the challenge of history and its tragedy.” Five years ago, COIN seemed like the right strategy. The empirical results on this experiment are now in, and they are not looking good.
Oleg Svet is a doctorate student in the war-studies department in King’s College London.