You’re going to hear a lot of crowing about the reduction in NATO-caused civilian casualties in Afghanistan during the last few months compared to the same time last year. (Read the full report here in PDF format.) This reduction took place in the context of a massive spike in overall violence and a continually degrading security environment in that country. Before the supporters of the president’s brutal, costly counterinsurgency strategy (referred to without affection as "COINdinistas") get started this week, I want to reiterate a point I made a couple of months ago when the last round of silly, disingenuous pro-counterinsurgency celebrations took place:
COIN doctrine as interpreted by [COINdinistas] with the aid of the stats [they] used asserts something like this: McChrystal and friends reduce by 28 percent the number of civilians they kill, while the Taliban increase the number they kill. The local population’s animosity builds toward the Taliban, triggering a shift in political support to the U.S. and allies, a withdrawal of support for the Taliban and an influx of intelligence to the counter-insurgents.
This interpretation, however, is a very academic exercise with major blind spots as to the actual dynamic in Afghanistan and [and it's a gross distortion of] the actual COIN doctrine described in the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual:
"Progress in building support for the [host nation] government requires protecting the local populace. People who do now believe they are secure from insurgent intimidation, coercion, and reprisals will not risk overtly supporting COIN efforts. The populace decides when it feels secure enough to support COIN efforts. (p. 179)"
"During any period of instability, people’s primary interest is physical security for themselves and their families. When [host nation] forces fail to provide security or threaten the security of civilians, the population is likely to seek security guarantees from insurgents, militias, or other armed groups. This situation can feed support for an insurgency. (p 98)"
"Counterinsurgents should not expect people to willingly provide information if insurgents have the ability to violently intimidate sources. (p. 120)"
Note that all of these statements deal with the importance not just of the protection of civilians from killings by counterinsurgents, but the protection of the people in general. Counterinsurgency doctrine says that people aren’t going to switch to your side if they think they’ll get killed for it, no matter how low you drop the rate at which you cause civilian deaths. In other words, a drop in casualties caused by U.S. and allied groups is not sufficient for the hoped-for dynamic to take hold, according to COIN doctrine. It must be paired with an increase in security from insurgent violence as well.
So, even if … McChrystal and Co. were killing fewer civilians, they still hadn’t managed to increase security for civilians in Afghanistan as measured by the total civilian deaths caused by the parties to the conflict. …Even if McChrystal proved he could drive down civilian casualties when he puts his mind to it, he’s also managed to prove over the last year that he can’t protect the population.
People who claim to actually believe in the efficacy of and the necessity for actual counterinsurgency in Afghanistan need to start screaming, right now, about what’s going on in Afghanistan under General McChrystal because their credibility is now unambiguously on the line. …The problem is, though, that an honest reading of counterinsurgency doctrine should have indicated that the system was already blinking red in 2009, but for whatever reason people continued to sing the praises of Saint Stanley McChrystal and took up gross distortions of COIN doctrine to do so. Numerous prerequisites for success as articulated by COIN doctrine remained absent and/or further degraded over 2009, including host nation government legitimacy and security for the local population, yet many writers focused on one particular statistic (casualties caused by pro-government forces) because it let them tell the story they wanted to tell.
If you see a person crowing about how the new U.N. reports shows the "strategy is working" and we’re on our way to victory, know that you’re looking at a disingenuous snake-oil salesman who’s hoping you can’t read.