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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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Bernie Sanders and the future of the American left

How an old, white guy is bringing class-based politics to the Democratic primary.

One thing is immediately striking: as he addresses primary rallies across America, arms flailing like a giant bird coming in to land, snow-white hair fizzing skywards like Doc Brown’s in Back to the Future, eyes startled behind the robust spectacles he has worn since childhood, Bernie Sanders looks quite unlike any other presidential candidate.

Perhaps the surprise in those eyes is sparked by the size of the crowds Sanders has been attracting. They are enormous, rivalling the numbers who turned out for Barack Obama back in 2008, and unprecedented for a candidate who is not shy of describing himself as a socialist: 28,000 in Portland and LA, 25,000 in Boston and 15,000 in Seattle. Even in Dallas, not a renowned centre of radicalism, 8,000 turned out to “feel the Bern”.

In these days when slick suits and expensive haircuts are increasingly a turn-off for a public weary of smooth politicians they see as delivering only for the wealthy, Sanders’s persona, like that of Jeremy Corbyn, his equally unkempt British counterpart, has proved popular. But it is his message – an angry chronicling of the depredations facing so many Americans and a solid social-democratic programme for putting things right – that is really pulling in the crowds. Sanders, who is 74, and the main challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, doesn’t just look different. With his confident calls for a “revolution” to break up the banks and impose higher taxes on the rich, he doesn’t sound like any other recent presidential contender, either.


I first met Bernie Sanders in 1996. I was the publisher of his book Outsider in the House, a political autobiography that appeared the following year (and which has just been reissued by Verso with a new foreword, and more than a hint of optimism, as Outsider in the White House). The occasion was a benefit concert during his successful bid to be re-elected to the House of Representatives from the small, rural state of Vermont.

Sanders’s early years are not well documented, least of all by him. He devotes less than three of the 300 pages in Outsider to the first three decades of his life. He doesn’t much care for the “humble roots” narrative beloved of so many politicians, generally millionaires whose ancestors lived in broken-down cabins. But the raw material is certainly there. The son of Polish immigrants, Sanders grew up in a working-class Jewish family in Flatbush, Brooklyn. At home, money was tight: “Every major household purchase . . . would be accompanied by a fight between my parents as to whether we could afford it,” he wrote.

It was an achievement to gain admission to the University of Chicago, and though he described himself as “not a good student”, that was a result of sacrificing coursework to the cause of social activism. He settled permanently in Vermont at the age of 27, having bought an 85-acre farm in the north of the state for $2,500. Four years later he moved to Burlington, the state capital, where he became involved in city politics, at first in the tiny Liberty Union Party and then as an independent. In 1981 he was inaugurated as mayor and commenced a series of tilts at the state’s congressional seat. He finally entered the House of Representatives in 1991 – the first independent candidate to enter Congress in 40 years.

By the time I encountered him, Sanders was seeking to defend his seat for the third time. The concert where we met was taking place in an old art-deco theatre in Brattleboro, perhaps the most hippiefied community in a state where tie-dye remains as ubiquitous as dairy herds. It was headlined by Pete Seeger, who ran through a panoply from his folk songbook to a packed crowd that knew all the words.

Ten years earlier, Mayor Sanders, a long-time admirer of Seeger, had recorded one of his songs, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”, on a surreal folk/rap album. Now, he waited until Seeger had finished his set before taking the stage and, speaking in the only manner he seems to know – a gruff, shouted staccato – exhorted Vermonters to join him in the fight against Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole to stop the Republicans from taking over the presidency and the Senate. The response was rapturous. Sanders left the stage like a president concluding a State of the Union speech, gladhanding lines of admirers as he made his way out of the hall.

A few weeks later I met him again, this time at his congressional office in Washington, DC. On the wall of his office I spotted a plaque of Eugene Debs, who ran for Congress and the presidency on a socialist ticket, travelling to every part of the country on a train he called the Red Special and picking up 6 per cent of the popular vote in 1912, when he finished fourth, behind Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

Sanders had invited me to lunch and so we headed off through the underground passageway that leads from the office building to the congressional dining room. We were accompanied along the way by one of his assistants who, in true West Wing style, peppered him with questions and made notes on a clipboard as we walked. We had just started our food when John Kasich, then congressman for Ohio and now governor of the state and a contender for the Republican presidential nomination, wandered over for a chat. Despite Kasich’s reputation as a fiscal conservative, it was evident that he and Sanders had a cordial relationship, and indeed, Sanders invited him to join us for lunch.

It was difficult to reconcile these two contrasting snapshots of Sanders: the rousing air punch in Vermont and the bridge-building handshake in DC. But the more one looks into his career, the clearer it becomes that this dual approach is integral to his remarkable political ascent. Sanders plays it quite differently inside and out, but he plays both sides very hard.

“Bernie doesn’t see a contradiction between working within the system and campaigning to change it,” the journalist Matt Taibbi told me, recalling the time when he shadowed Sanders for several weeks in 2005 while researching a piece for Rolling Stone. “I remember one Thursday afternoon I made a snarky comment about members of the House already sneaking off home for a long weekend and how it seemed to me that many of them were pretty lazy. Bernie scolded me, insisting that most of the people in Congress work very conscientiously. He doesn’t believe the system functions for ordinary people, but he’s not cynical about it either.”

This point was reiterated by Heather Gautney, an associate professor of sociology at Fordham University in New York who previously worked as a researcher in Sanders’s Senate office. “Working with Bernie in DC, I realised what a difficult place it was for someone more interested in movement-building than passing legislation,” Gautney said. “But Bernie was known for getting substantial chunks of the Republican vote in Vermont and he used that same skill to connect with some pretty unlikely allies in Congress.”

Sanders’s legislative record is strikingly good. In the decade after the Republicans took over the House of Representatives in 1995 no other lawmaker attached more amendments to bills that were voted on. He achieved this by using his position as an independent to put together coalitions that spanned both of the main parties, and also by sheer hard work. In his Rolling Stone article, Taibbi describes Sanders waiting patiently for hours to table an amendment in the office of the House rules committee, “a tiny, airless closet deep in the labyrinth of the Capitol where some of the very meanest people on Earth spend their days cleaning democracy like a fish”.

Sanders’s method of working across party lines is not without its critics. Especially on the left, there are voices that wonder if the compromises that inevitably accompany playing the system in DC are too large. Many of Sanders’s positions on foreign policy have skewed towards the militarism and careless disregard for human rights that prevail among the Washington establishment. Although notably, and unlike Hillary Clinton, he opposed the initial vote on the Iraq War, Sanders voted for every bill that came before Congress to fund the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. He has supported basing the new F-35 fighter plane at Burlington Airport in Vermont, despite widespread concern from residents about the environmental impact. And he did not oppose the Senate resolution that supported Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2014, which left as many as 2,200 Palestinians dead.

Sanders is clearly happier talking about problems inside the US than foreign policy. In his opening statement to last Saturday’s televised debate between the Democratic candidates, he segued awkwardly from condemning the attacks in Paris to excoriating America’s “rigged economy”. Yet on domestic issues, too, some of his stands have given progressives pause for thought: his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-country trade agreement championed by Barack Obama, has always been grounded in an argument in favour of saving jobs for American workers, rather than any notion of international solidarity. His slowness in expressing support for the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement, something which his campaign has latterly striven hard to correct, was less of a surprise to those aware of his consistent support for the police union while mayor of Burlington. And his position on guns (he voted against the Brady Bill, which mandated background checks on buyers of firearms) is the only area in which Clinton outflanks him to the left.

But perhaps the biggest issue for many progressives is Sanders’s decision to run for president through, rather than outside, the Democratic primary. Though he began his political career in the Liberty Union Party and has stood in every election since as an independent, he is, as Howard Dean, the progressives’ challenger in the Democratic primary of 2003/2004, put it, “basically . . . a Democrat . . . [who] votes with the Democrats 98 per cent of the time”.

As Sanders relates in Outsider in the House, faced in 1996 with the choice of backing Ralph Nader, “a personal friend and an exemplary progressive” running as an independent, or Bill Clinton, whose policies on health care, welfare reform, trade, gay marriage and military spending he sharply disagreed with, Sanders decided to “support” Clinton. “Perhaps ‘support’ is too strong a word,” he frets in the book. “I’m planning no press conferences to push his candidacy, and will do no campaigning for him. I will vote for him, and make that public.”

Sanders has called for a vote for the Democratic nominee in every presidential election since Jimmy Carter left office in 1981, and early this month, on ABC’s This Week, he appeared to have completed a long transition, asserting: “I am a Democrat now.”

This failure to build an electoral force outside the Democrats always leads to a dead end, according to Anthony Arnove, a prominent member of the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) who is also a publisher and literary agent representing a range of leftish writers, including Arundhati Roy. “We’ve seen it over and over,” Arnove said: “a left challenge fires up the base and is then defeated in the primaries by a centrist, or, more accurately, right-wing candidate, who goes on to betray everything those people were mobilised around.”

Sanders’s fundraising almost matched Clinton’s over the summer – in the third quarter they raised $26m and $28m, respectively – and in September he became the first candidate to attract more than a million individual donations. (The average donation to his campaign has been $30.) But his dip in the polls after Hillary’s strong performances in the first nationally televised primary debate, and then again at her House select committee hearing on the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, suggests he will struggle to win the nomination. As of early November he trailed Clinton nationally by 25 points.

In Arnove’s view, Sanders “won’t get further than Super Tuesday [at the beginning of March], when he’ll direct his base to vote for Clinton. This is exactly how the Democrats become a graveyard for progressive politics, when what we desperately need are social movements that can remain independent of both establishment parties and push for their own agenda.”


The revolution to which Sanders often refers is a long way from the sort envisaged by Arnove’s ISO. He is pursuing a fairer capitalism, not its overthrow. “He’s not Trotsky,” as Taibbi put it to me. But there are those inside his campaign who think its primary focus should be building a grass-roots organisation capable of transcending the four-yearly coming together of presidential elections, to create a more permanent basis for a broad, progressive movement.

One such advocate is Adolph Reed, a writer and academic who is campaigning for Sanders in South Carolina. Working with local unions and Labor for Bernie Sanders 2016, which has 70,000 signed-up members, Reed sees the potential in using Sanders’s programme, with its emphasis on basic economic demands such as the minimum wage, universal health care and free college tuition, as a way of drawing together various groups campaigning around single issues such as housing and police racism.

For Reed, who is black, class trumps race as the key to building a movement. “In New Orleans everyone talked about Katrina as having a devastating effect on black people in the city, which of course it did. But when you analyse it, class was a much better predictor of who suffered most there,” he told me. The centre of a class-based movement, Reed argues, will have to be provided by the trade unions. “Despite the fashionability of protests without any specific demands or elected leaderships, no movement initiative is going to have staying power without being anchored in the trade unions.”

Recruiting the unions to work alongside Sanders’s campaign in the way Reed envisages isn’t easy. The American Federation of Teachers and the machinists’ union have already thrown in their lot with Hillary Clinton. And Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO (America’s national federation of trade unions), has warned individual unions against coming out for Sanders. But Reed can point to significant declarations of support, from postal workers and the National Nurses Union. The AFL-CIO chapters in Vermont and, more surprisingly, South Carolina have also backed his run.

“It’s important to keep Bernie in the race for as long as possible, but the ultimate objective is to develop structures that can continue beyond the election,” Reed said. “It’s premature to say what this network will look like, but Bernie’s campaign provides an important boost to putting it in place.”


From Jesse Jackson to Dennis Kuci­nich to Howard Dean, an array of people’s champions has made a splash in the recent history of Democratic presidential primaries. None, however, has been as explicitly critical of capitalism (or so gruff about it) as Bernie Sanders. His no-nonsense, class-based politics are a measure of how the disenchantment with the ideology of a free market that arrived like a train in the 1980s and ran off the rails in 2008 is now finding its way into the mainstream.

Up until now, the critical moments of left advance in America – the Seattle WTO protests, the anti-war movement, Occupy Wall Street, the campaign for gay rights and, today, Black Lives Matter – have occurred outside electoral politics. There are a couple of good reasons for this. The US electoral system, like Britain’s, makes third-party challenges extraordinarily difficult. And inside the Democratic Party these movements would have been crushed by a conservative leadership around the Democratic National Committee, put in place by Bill Clinton.

One result is a paucity of new progressive voices inside the party. At a moment when, as Gramsci once put it, the old order no longer works but the new order has not yet been born, Sanders, with his New Deal politics and firebrand demeanour, seems not so much a successor to the old order as a throwback to a time that pre-dates it, when politicians spoke with conviction and the society they represented was less unfair. As such, he provides a staging post for a new progressive consciousness (according to a poll by Pew at the end of 2011, more Americans aged 18 to 29 would prefer to live under socialism than under capitalism) that is not yet sufficiently coherent to enter mainstream politics in its own right, either through a serious third-party challenge or the transformation of the Democratic Party.

As a middle-class white man, Sanders has been able to get a pass to promote bold positions that someone with a less privileged identity might have found hard to sell. And his age, paradoxically, has proved not to be a disadvantage with a youthful constituency dismayed by the surrender to expedience that disfigures so much of contemporary American politics. His record has been constant over such a long period that, again like Jeremy Corbyn, he can be relied on not to sell out. Though his politics are less radical, his venerability provides a messianic cloak from the same closet as the one worn by Noam Chomsky, another hero for many young progressives.

So it’s not just today’s professionally polished politicians to whom Sanders presents a stark contrast. Recent progressive movements have embraced an identity politics that was much less prevalent when Sanders started out back in 1970s Vermont. In order to forge the sorts of alliances that are necessary to mount a credible challenge on the national political stage, they will likely have to borrow extensively from his unifying class politics. But their leadership will be younger, blacker, less straight and less masculine than Sanders. In that sense, he represents the last hurrah for the old white guy.

Colin Robinson is co-publisher at OR Books (, based in New York

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror