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Two sides of the Coin

As Barack Obama and Gordon Brown prepare to invest extra troops in the latest attempt to defeat the

"Strategy without tactics is the slow road to victory," wrote Sun Tzu in The Art of War, "but tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat." Stanley McChrystal, the top US military commander in Afghanistan, would do well to heed the words of the ancient Chinese general.

McChrystal is a lead member of the counter-insurgency (or "Coin") brigade that now dominates the US national security establishment. Coin theory emphasises a "population-centric" over an "enemy-centric" approach. It disinters the language of "clear, hold and build", resonant of the Vietnam era, and describes soldiers and marines as "nation-builders as well as warriors" (to borrow a phrase from the US army's much-lauded 2006 counter-insurgency field manual, co-authored by the celebrated General David Petraeus). Coin is predicated on the idea that it is possible to win supporters for an insurgency by providing security and basic services, and ensuring the presence of a strong, legitimate government.

Or, as McChrystal put it, in a memo to President Barack Obama leaked in September: "This new strategy must . . . be properly resourced and executed through an integrated civilian-military counter-insurgency campaign that earns the support of the Afghan people and provides them with a secure environment." Without extra troops, said McChrystal, the mission "will likely result in failure".

Critics of the new focus on counter-insurgency theory claim it is a tactical gimmick that enables policymakers to avoid thinking long and hard about what the endgame in Afghan­istan will actually look like. It is not a recipe for winning the war in the long run, they say; it is only for avoiding defeat in the short run.

“Coin doctrine is, at best, a collection of tactics that may or may not apply to a given situation," says Celeste Ward, a former deputy assistant secretary of defence under George W Bush. "But because of the absence of real discussion about US strategy and priorities, Coin has been elevated to the status of a strategy."

Coin's popularity, Ward told me, is that it "offers a framework that is palatable to people from very different political points of view: there is a unity of vision among both neocons and traditional Democrats". The former are excited by its emphasis on more troops, the latter by its focus on winning "hearts and minds" and "nation-building". It is for this reason, she says, that in Washington, DC today "counter-insurgency is king".

The proponents of Coin - or "Coinistas", as they have come to be known - point to the success of the 2007 US military "surge" in troop numbers in Iraq under the leadership of General David Petraeus, which they credit with reducing the levels of violence and insurgency across the country.

It is this "surge narrative" that has emboldened the Coinistas, but traditionalists, such as Colonel Gian Gentile, director of the military history programme at the US Military Academy at West Point, remain unconvinced.

The dramatic drop in violence in Iraq was the result of "a decision by senior American leaders in 2007 to pay large amounts of money to Sunni insurgents to stop attacking Americans and join the fight against al-Qaeda", says Gentile, who remains an outspoken critic of Coin despite being an active-duty officer. "Coupled with this was the decision by the Shia militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr to refrain from attacking coalition forces."

Gentile, who commanded a cavalry squad­ron in west Baghdad before the surge, says his "fundamental mission was to protect the people" and the "overall methods that the US army employed at the small-unit level where [he] operated were no different from the so-called new counter-insurgency methods used today".

Aside from the Iraq surge, Coinistas also point to earlier examples from history where counter-insurgency methods seem to have succeeded - in particular, the British colonial experience in Malaya (now Malaysia) between 1948 and 1960.

“Malaya is the 'gold standard' for Coin," says the historian Michael Vlahos, a member of the national security assessment team at Johns Hopkins University. But, he argues, this is a mistaken view: the Chinese Communist insurgents were a tiny and unpopular outside movement removed from the population, the British had a close and credible relationship with the ruling princes, and the local people were politically passive. And, it should be noted, it still took the British a dozen years to prevail.

None of those favourable conditions holds in Afghanistan, where the war has now entered its ninth year. The Taliban represent a huge section of the Pashtuns, the country's largest ethnic grouping, who are largely unrepresented in the political and military establishment of the "new" Afghanistan; and neither America nor Britain is considered a friendly nation.

The Pashtuns are among the most fiercely tribalised and nationalist peoples in the world, united only against a foreign invader. The thread running through almost all insurgencies is opposition to foreigners. Sending more and more troops increases the size of the foreign footprint in Afghanistan, undermining the legitimacy of the host government. As even the US defence secretary, Robert Gates, has worried in the not-so-distant past: "Too many forces could look a lot like an occupation."

A numbers game

The Coin theory of "clear, hold and build" is manpower-intensive, relying on an increased number of counter-insurgents to maintain widespread law and order. The field manual emphasises the importance of "troop density", or the ratio of security forces to inhabitants: "20 counter-insurgents per 1,000 residents [or 1:50] is often considered the minimum troop density required for effective Coin operations".

The CIA estimates Afghanistan's population, as of July 2009, to be roughly 28.4 million. Thus, going by the 1:50 ratio, the size of the US-led coalition force would need to be approximately 568,000 troops.

The US military commitment to Afghan­istan stands at 68,000 troops. There are about 38,000 non-US troops in Nato's International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) also deployed in the country, including 9,000 from the UK. The expected US troop surge of up to 40,000 - the number McChrystal is said to be demanding - would take the total to only 146,000, or just over 400,000 troops short of the number needed to satisfy Coin's own textbook definition of "minimum troop density".

The Coinistas, however, claim that their ratio allows for the host nation's military and police forces to be included in the total figure.Would this make a difference? Even adding in the 97,000 Afghan police officers and the 100,000-odd Afghan soldiers leaves the Nato-led force more than 200,000 counter-insurgents short of the "minimum".

Furthermore, the Afghan National Army is plagued by desertion: 10,000 recruits have disappeared in recent months. Soldiers are under-equipped and underpaid; some 15 per cent of them are thought to be drug addicts. Dominated by Tajik troops from the north of the country, the "national" army has little or no credibility in the southern, Pashtun areas of Afghanistan, where the Taliban mainly operate, and from where they draw ethnic support.

Meanwhile, the Afghan police, one member of whom shot dead five British soldiers on 3 November, are prone to infiltration and corruption and lack proper training. They have lost roughly 1,500 staff to insurgent violence this year and around 10,000 policemen are absent without leave.

“The Afghan army is useless and the police are corrupt," says Dan Plesch, director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at the School of Oriental and African Studies. "So what does McChrystal propose? More useless troops and corrupt police. It's a counter-intuitive solution."

According to Plesch, there is a yawning gap between Coin theory and practice. "It's all fine on paper, but that doesn't translate into success on the ground," he told me. "You're still the foreign infidel with big boots on. You are still bombing, shooting and occupying."

But Coinistas are nothing if not optimistic, or even triumphalist. "Coin theorists tend to imply a kind of determinism: if Coin precepts are followed, the campaign can be successful," says Ward. Or, in the words of Vlahos: "Do this and then this, and at the right moment add this ingredient and . . . you win."

“For all its claims to novelty and modernity, Coin is eerily reminiscent of [the Napoleonic military thinker] Jomini at his worst - a list of prescriptive doctrines that claim to be valid for all times and places," says Colonel Douglas Macgregor, the retired senior military officer who commanded US cavalry troops during the first Gulf war.Macgregor, like Gentile, is critical of this latest plea from hawks to deploy US military force for utopian political ends. "We cannot 'fix' Afghanistan with military power, nor can we shape the destiny of hundreds of millions of Muslims living in the region. Only the people who live there can do that, because nations are built from within, not from without."

Taliban red herring

As a young officer in the Gurkhas, John Mackinlay experienced a conventional Maoist-style insurgency at first hand in the rainforests of North Borneo during the 1960s. But, as he argues in his new book, The Insurgent Archipelago, such experiences are of no use to modern counter-insurgents confronted with the threat of post-Maoist, globalised attacks. "Malaya is so long ago that it is not relevant," he told me.

“The Americans think they can take their fire extinguisher and go abroad to squirt some water, put out the blaze and go home," says Mackinlay, who teaches in the war studies department at King's College, London. "That's bollocks." The Taliban insurgency, he argues, is a red herring and sending more troops is a distraction. What matters, he says, is the al-Qaeda insurgency across the globe. Mackinlay distinguishes between what he calls an "expeditionary campaign" against insurgents in Afghanistan and the "domestic campaign" against extremists in the UK. His criticism of the obsession with Coin is that the domestic campaign should have "primacy" and that "the expeditionary campaign is antithetical to the domestic campaign, because it pisses off your average Muslim punter in Bolton".

The Taliban have no known interest in attacking mainland Britain (or America). Of the 15 major terror plots that UK security agencies have successfully prevented since 11 September 2001, none has been linked to Afghanistan. Of the 90 or so Islamists imprisoned in Britain on terrorism offences, not a single one hails from Helmand. On the contrary, Mackinlay tells me, "Afghanistan is the recruiting sergeant for what is happening in the UK."

As centre-left governments in the US and UK prepare to commit additional troops to the Afghan war effort, his words seem to go unheard. The Ministry of Defence plans to deploy 500 further British troops to the killing fields
of Helmand and seems to have signed up fully to America's Coin approach, even publishing the first UK counter-insurgency manual in eight years.

One retired British colonel who served in Iraq and Afghanistan is aghast. "It doesn't matter whether you send 500 troops or 5,000 troops," he says. "What is the point when there is no endgame and no exit strategy?"

Coin has become an oversimplified and superficial doctrine for fighting foreign battles, one that makes war a more attractive, easy and likely option, but is also enormously burdensome in troops and money. Nonetheless, such doctrines are seductive: Bill Clinton had liberal interventionism in Kosovo, George Bush fell back on neoconservatism over Iraq, and Barack Obama is on the verge of opting for Coin in Afghanistan.

Coin will not provide a silver - or even a lead - bullet in Afghanistan. And, even if its critics such as Gentile, Ward and Plesch are wrong, the counter-insurgency tactics of Petraeus and McChrystal in Kabul and Kandahar will do little to win hearts and minds here at home, or in the disaffected and alienated Muslim communities across Europe. It is this strategic truth that the Coinistas avoid at their peril.

John Mackinlay's "The Insurgent Archipelago" is published by C Hurst & Co (£20)
Mehdi Hasan is senior editor (politics) at the New Statesman
. Read his blog Dissident Voice

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 30 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Left Hanging

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times