Lang on Counterinsurgency

Pat Lang has a very good long post expressing an appropriately skeptical view of the history of counterinsurgency as a policy concept. I won’t rehash everything he says, but I’m very much in agreement that when your big precedent of success is the British in Malaya (“The British succeeded in suppressing this revolt but what did this successful effort gain them?”) then you don’t have much of a precedent.

He recommends the following course of action for Afghanistan instead of COIN:

What should we do?

– Hold the cities as bases to prevent a recognized Taliban government until some satisfactory (to us) deal is made among the Afghans.


– Participate in international economic development projects for Afghanistan.

– Conduct effective clandestine HUMINT out of the city bases against international jihadi elements.

– Turn the tribes against the jihadi elements.

– Continue to hunt and kill/capture dangerous jihadis.

How long might you have to follow this program? It might be a long time but that would be sustainable. A full-blown COIN campaign in Afghanistan is not politically sustainable.

The thing of it is that I think this is pretty much what the Obama administration’s strategy actually looks like. We’re not, after all, sending nearly the number of troops that FM 3–24 would suggest for countrywide counterinsurgency. Instead the idea is that this should be enough troops to secure key population centers. The idea is then that this (a) buys time to build up Afghan state capacity and (b) convinces anti-government forces that there’s no way a Taliban-led coalition is going to establish itself as the government of Afghanistan. That, in principle, should create adequate incentives for at least some of the current members of the Taliban-led coalition to want to strike deals with the Afghan government.