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Two sides of the COIN

By Anna Solar-Bassett - posted Tuesday, 15 September 2009

It is increasingly clear that the Bush administration will leave office with Al Qaeda having successfully relocated its base from Afghanistan to Pakistan's tribal areas, where it has rebuilt much of its ability to attack from the region and broadcast its messages to militants across the world. Nothing - not even Iraq - represents a greater policy failure for the outgoing administration. Richard Holbrooke, Obama's Special Envoy to Afghanistan.

Our goal is clear: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda and their extremist allies ... this is not a challenge that we asked for, it is a challenge that came to our shores ... America, our allies and partners and above all the Afghan people share a common interest in pursuing security, opportunity and justice. 44th President of the United States of America, Barack Obama.

This foreign policy stuff is a little frustrating. 43rd President of the United States of America, George W. Bush.

In an essay titled “A Common Security for A Common Humanity”, Obama's Foreign Policy essay - written at the specific request of the magazine upon running for Presidency - seemed to signal that the intent of the future 44th President of the United States was towards a wholly softer and more subtle approach to American foreign relations than his predecessor George W. Bush. Overall, Obama expressed a willingness to replace what historian Paterson has termed “confrontation with conversation”.

Obama's intentions were clear: a new focus and direction to American foreign relations which ensured that his Administration divested themselves of the Bush doctrine and its subsequent horrors. Returning to a more liberalist view based on multilateralism and the “soft power” of diplomacy (as opposed to Bush's “realist” focus on military might), his positivism about the potential of the Middle Eastern situation post-9-11 was obvious.


The infamous quote from Obama is that he is “not to all wars - just to dumb wars” - it is this quote at a peace rally against the Iraq war that helped assist him secure the political base from which he began to build his presidential campaign. His message was clear - insisting upon removal of forces from Iraq so that there is enough resources to refocus on the real issue - stabilising Afghanistan. And why is Afghanistan important? Because of Pakistan - namely, a nuclear armed Pakistan.

The long-term success of a costly counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy, both financially and in terms of human life, is a politically risky move with a slim chance of success. Thus, in what is set to become “perhaps the most controversial and divisive issue in US Defense policy” the Obama administration has succeeded in re-investing energy and purpose into the Afghani foreign policy solutions through two highly interlinked issues: military strength to address keeping the peace, and continued aid to assist in tackling corruption, most particularly related to poppy growth and the opium/heroin trade.

A little background for those of you not so well acquainted with the Middle East. The US funded Afghani muhajideen rebel jihadist fighters against the Soviet forces in 1979. Combined with a lack of follow-up and nation-building exercises after the end of the Cold War, these rebel fighters quickly rose into the power that is the Taliban. They were in power in an area where warlords and grave human rights abuses became the norm. However, the opium trade was banned in 2000 and largely declined - although it never fully disappeared.

Upon invasion in 2001 opium production shot (pardon the pun) through the roof, corruption trebled and a weak rule of (tribal) law gave way to insurgency on a mass scale. Most worryingly, the southern region of Helmand, where most of the opium of Afghanistan is grown and produced, continues to fund al-Qaida activity across the border in neighbouring Pakistan. That is, a country where toleration of the United States and their ideals is even less celebrated, where common popular sentiment is even angrier towards the West, and where nuclear weapons are in existence. As Obama has said:

... the situation is increasingly perilous ... the future of Afghanistan is inextricably linked to the future of it's neighbour Pakistan ... [their] border region has become one of the most dangerous areas in the world.

Thus, realistically speaking, protection from within Afghanistan is also a very wise move on the complicated chessboard of the Middle East when considering the threat of a nuclear Pakistan. Pakistan is the real threat to the US, with a much less sympathetic population to US occupation and the trump card of being a nuclear power. If the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan is a success, the worry that al-Qaida will have a new haven from which to operate is therefore realised. This not only gives the Pakistani-based al-Qaida a chance to co-operate more fully with the Afghani based Taliban in another US-attack; but also threatens the strength of the regime currently in place in Islamabad.


As mentioned, the Pakistani population is far less amenable to US interference and with a GDP six times that of Afghanistan, it has ample resources from which the Taliban and al-Qaida would be jointly glad to share. It is therefore imperative that Afghanistan be internally stabilised not only for its own sake but for that of its neighbour. Admittedly, there is a long causal link leading to this takeover, but the threat, whilst not yet maxed out on its megalomania card, is still not minimal.

The current military strategies are that of counter insurgency (COIN). COIN strategies typically have high casualties at the start of an operation in a trade-off for less casualties in the long-term and security/stability. The reality is that, eight years after the start of the Afghani operation, experts such as Holbrooke are realistic that US troops will be present in the country for at least about another six years. COIN strategies are about achieving long-term goals; whereas the US political cycle runs on a shorter time frame of elections and public opinion.

The difficulty here is that public opinion has proved to support the Afghani war only with inverse proportionality to the number of casualties sustained. Thus, ironically, it is at the start of a COIN campaign when casualties are the highest, that the commitment to the mission needs to be strongest (so that troops may feel secure and supported by their families, friends and the wider public that they serve), but instead it is likely to be at its lowest.

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About the Author

Anna Solar-Bassett is a BA/LLB IV student at the University of Sydney with a keen interest in international relations and affairs.

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