Koran Burnings, Air Strikes, and the Perils of Counterinsurgency Warfare

Afghans protesting against the United States after American soldiers burned Korans as part of a garbage pile at Bagram Air Field.

President Obama has apologized for U.S. soldiers’ “mistakenly insulting the Koran” by burning copies of the Muslim holy book, but anger and violence against U.S. troops has escalated over the past several days.  This comes on the heels of a NATO airstrike that killed eight young Afghans, for which NATO offered its condolences.

These developments would be “bad public relations” for NATO and the U.S. in any war, but they take on added strategic significance in the context of counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare–the type of campaign NATO is pursuing in Afghanistan.  Whereas in conventional warfare the objective is to crush the enemy quickly and decisively, COIN warfare is less about military victory and more about “winning the hearts and minds” of the civilian population.  Specifically, the goal is to provide security and basic services to the civilian population so they will support the government and stop supporting the insurgents.  As the U.S. discovered in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, when the government is corrupt, autocratic, or incompetent or military force is used in a heavy-handed way–especially if civilians are killed–the population will tend to turn against the government and into the arms of the insurgents.

American and allied military leaders understand the imperatives of COIN warfare, but these requirements are easier to describe in theoretical terms than to implement in a war zone.  Two key “paradoxes of counterinsurgency” from Chapter 1 of the Counterinsurgency manual written by General David Petraeus seem particularly relevant to the current difficulties in Afghanistan:

Paradox #2: “Sometimes, the More Force Is Used, the Less Effective It Is.  Any use of force produces many effects, not all of which can be foreseen. The more force applied, the greater the chance of collateral damage and mistakes. Using substantial force also increases the opportunity for insurgent propaganda to portray lethal military activities as brutal. In contrast, using force precisely and discriminately strengthens the rule of law that needs to be established.”

Paradox #9: “Many Important Decisions Are Not Made by Generals. Successful COIN operations require competence and judgment by Soldiers and Marines at all levels. Indeed, young leaders—so-called “strategic corporals”—often make decisions at the tactical level that have strategic consequences. Senior leaders set the proper direction and climate with thorough training and clear guidance; then they trust their subordinates to do the right thing. Preparation for tactical-level leaders requires more than just mastering Service doctrine; they must also be trained and educated to adapt to their local situations, understand the legal and ethical implications of their actions, and exercise initiative and sound judgment in accordance with their senior commanders’ intent.”

Are the U.S. and its NATO allies on the verge of losing the war in Afghanistan?  With the Obama administration’s decision to end U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan by the middle of next year, is it inevitable that the population will turn back to the Taliban out of fear or necessity?  What, if anything, can be done to turn the tide in favor of the Karzai government and its external supporters?


One response to “Koran Burnings, Air Strikes, and the Perils of Counterinsurgency Warfare

  1. Pingback: The Perils of Counterinsurgency Warfare, Part 2 | World Politics News Review

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