Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Some Reflections on Counterinsurgency

The kind of strategy the United States Armed Forces is said to be using in Afghanistan is typically referred to as counterinsurgency or COIN for short. And a major emphasis in COIN doctrine is a focus on "winning hearts and minds" . But when you mention this to the average combat soldier here their response will usually involve the rolling of the eyes or something akin to that. Why? This is because most soldiers believe that this particular emphasis of COIN puts their lives unduly at risk. And in some ways this is true. For example, the command in charge of the area that I'm currently in has a ridiculous policy that does not permit an overwatch to engage with someone that they clearly see burying something into or onto the side of a road. Instead, they simply are to note the location on a grid for a Route Clearance unit (what I am a part of) to come and investigate at a later point. Similarly, the current ROE (rules of engagement) are very strict requiring extensive authorization to fire back when fired upon.

But I'm personally still receptive to the whole "hearts and minds" emphasis. Perhaps this is because I've not been here long enough or been shot at enough or nearly blown up enough. Regardless, I believe the doctrine has merit. Its internal logic makes sense: an insurgency will always have a resource from which to draw if a population is in general disaffected with their current government and/or occupiers hence the need to win the "hearts and minds" of the people so as to reduce (and hopefully eliminate) the influence of an insurgency upon the them. But there are problems: the theory doesn't always work out in practice and most often collides with other, usually security, interests.

For instance, most of the time I'm a rear gunner which entails, in addition to pulling rear security, being the "traffic control" for the convoy. My job is to keep rear vehicles from coming too close (usually within 50 meters) and to never permit one to pass us and break up the convoy. The same goes for when I'm pulling rear cordon security in the event that we are investigating and/or BIPing (blowing in place) an IED. No one is allowed past us which is for their safety and ours. The trouble here is that it would be nice if a simple hand gesture would do the trick of communicating to the Afghans what I need them to do, or rather, not do. But most often this doesn't work and it means resorting to more aggressive measures in order to ensure complicity. When I have to do this it is frustrating because I can see the fear and sometimes anger in their eyes. But of course, with the language barrier and the exigency of the situations we are in, there's no way to let the locals know that it is in their best interest to stay back. Unfortunately we represent a major disruption to their lives which can cause them to be receptive to influence from insurgents.

The challenge is to find a way to effectively balance genuine security interests with the goal of "winning hearts and minds". Often though the balance has to tip in favor of security interests. Such is the nature and complexity of COIN warfare. It makes one somewhat nostalgic for the days of conventional warfare when objectives were much clearer and more easily obtainable.

No comments:

Post a Comment