In the Arena

COIN of the Realm

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Foreign Policy magazine seems revivified in 2009, with a new roster of bloggers–including the estimable Tom Ricks–and some interesting articles in its Jan/Feb edition. I’d especially recommend this look at how the counterinsurgency (COIN) tactics that helped turn around the situation in Iraq can be applied to Afghanistan, by two of our best young military thinkers, John Nagl and Nate Fick. It is accompanied by an interview with David Petraeus who, as Centcom Commander, now supervises the Afghanistan theater.

For years, I’ve maintained that COIN is not only a more effective way of dealing with terrorist insurgencies but also a far more intelligent and humane way to conduct a war–protecting the public, knocking on doors rather than knocking down doors. For those who haven’t read the Army’s COIN manual (which Nagl helped write and Petraeus supervised), this piece is a good introduction to the zen-like creative paradoxes of counterinsurgency doctrine. It is also, clearly, the only way to succeed in Afghanistan.

One thing I’d add: the vocabulary and grammar of counterinsurgency doctrine are now the–okay, okay, I’m sorry–coin of the realm among those armies that are actually doing the fighting in Afghanistan: the Dutch, Aussies, Brits, Canadians and the United States, most prominently. This represents a major, significant transformation in the way the U.S. military and its allies see conflict situations, light years ahead of the Cheney-Rumsfeld way of knowledge. Creative commanders like General John Nicholson were successfully applying COIN principles in Afghanistan well before the Army manual was published–and now Nicholson will  help with the deployment of U.S. troops in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. It’s cause for some optimism in what is still a near-impossible situation.