Show Hide image

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

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
Show Hide image

Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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