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COIN Strategy vs. COIN Tactics

By Andrew Lubin | Published: August 26, 2010

The photo in Laura King’s Los Angeles Times article ‘Three cups of tea’ a byword for U.S. effort to win Afghan hearts and minds” shows why the war in Afghanistan is not going well for the United States.

As Ms. King so aptly explains, the phrase “three cups of tea” has been adapted from the Greg Mortenson best-seller of the same name by the American military as the basis of how to conduct a counterinsurgency campaign.

The concept is a good one: win the trust of the people and they’ll tell you who are the bad guys. In a country whose central government is known worldwide for corruption and incompetence, building local governments that can protect their own townspeople makes sense. “Counterinsurgency is easy,” said Col Dale Alford (USMC) at last year’s COIN Symposium at the National Press Club, “you want to make the locals choose us.” It worked with the Marines and Sunni’s in Ramadi and Anbar; it should work in Afghanistan.

But any plan is only as good as it’s implementation—and that bring us back to the photograph : two soldiers sitting at their desk in an office looking down at Afghans who are sitting far away from them on the floor. This is hardly how Gen James Mattis (USMC)  and Gen David Petraeus (Army), co-authors of the Army-Marine Counterinsurgency Manual, envisioned building relations with the locals.

Mattis knew how to deal with a wary population. “Take off your sunglasses,” he ordered his Marines back in 2003 Iraq, “and let them get to know you. Play soccer with the kids, and don’t worry if you lose. Shake a lot of hands and chat them up.” Sound, effective advice until Paul Bremer’s ill-planned CPA took charge and Iraq exploded with I.E.D.’s.

Marine-Afghan Shura in Garmsir, attended by author Andrew Lubin.

What the Army fails to understand is that it’s not how many cups of tea one drinks that’s important, but that the act of drinking tea or sharing a melon is how strangers sit down peacefully and begin to know one another. Afghanistan is an incredibly poor country; perhaps the 5th poorest in the world, and sharing food is the ultimate in hospitality. It’s also worth noting that relationships are not built in a day, neither here, or in Afghanistan. Similar to most dating rituals worldwide, it takes more than one cup of tea and more than one meeting, to build a relationship sufficiently deep to talk honestly about schooling, IED’s, and Taliban presence.

It’s fair to say that bureaucracy and counterinsurgency are incompatible. Living on a FOB and patrolling by vehicle ensures you meet no locals. Eating at the DFAC means you’re not eating with the locals, and it’s worth noting that ten months after President Obama ordered more troops into Afghanistan, the Army has yet to deploy their final thousands of troops. Air conditioned bunks, Wii in the MWR, fast-food joints, an MWR shop…while creature comforts are certainly attractive, creature comforts keep them tied to the FOB’s.

In comparison, the Marine forces in Helmand and Nimroz Provinces live in or in close proximity to the towns.  They have limited internet access, very little a/c, and no Wii. In Musa Qual’ah, they live in the village center. In Marjah, they live on some ten different little patrol bases. In Nawa and Garmsir, considered the success stories of COIN in Afghanistan, they live in and around the towns. Relationships and trust are built by constant exposure to each other, and the Marines patrol 3x daily 7 days/ week. Ms. King goes on to quote the ranking elder of a village who mentioned that American soldiers visited him ‘last month’, and how he doubted that an occasional visit by the American forces could keep the insurgents at bay.”

It’s been written that the Marines out-patrol the Army by a factor of perhaps 20-1, hot, tiring work in a country jaded by nine years of broken Western promises. Yet done properly, as Mortenson’s book and Marine efforts in Helmand Province evidence, personal relationships can bring two disparate cultures together for mutual success. With American assistance, they’ll build enough functioning local governments that will enable our troops to come home.

But then one needs to regularly be in the village talking to the elders in order to build that kind of relationship.

==========

Andrew Lubin is an 11x embedded journalist who writes extensively on Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also the author of the award-winning “Charlie Battery: A Marine Artillery Battery in Iraq”

Posted in Agora

51 Responses to “COIN Strategy vs. COIN Tactics”

  1. johartman
    August 26, 2010 at 10:10 am

    This article hits the nail on the head. Take your sunglasses off! Im not criticizing the military. I too lost someone in the Korengal province. Lets just reflect and see if our actions are following are words. We need to implement the best practices that are already in place here(i.e.Nawa and Garmsir)

    Everyone should read this and then run out and buy a copy of Three Cups of tea. I can assure I am.

    Jo Hartman
    Retired Teacher

  2. August 26, 2010 at 10:34 am

    With their frequent foot patrols and hard work, our Marines are doing exactly what it will take to win hearts and minds. Winning hearts and minds is an ancient practice that has grown to be somewhat unpopular in Western culture, but it an absolute necessity among the tribes of Afghanistan.

    Perhaps the Army should make their FOBs less comfortable so the soldiers will be more willing to get out for their “three cups of tea.”

    • soldier
      December 2, 2010 at 6:43 am

      hey “guy”…. I am an infantryman in the Army that helped build a platoon sized patrol base in the middle of multiple villages in a very rural area. We too patrol three times a day seven days a week on foot. don’t disrespect Soldiers that sweat and bleed the same as any other uniform that is putting the hard work in. just because you read it in an article like this doesn’t make it so. you should know better.- irritated infantryman

  3. August 27, 2010 at 6:25 am

    Thanks Andrew. Few would disagree with your insightful comments. I do a lot of work in other countries and I have found the same to be true. The hard part is the first step. Taking off your sunglasses is about taking a step out of your comfort zone. There is also a snowball effect at play – someone had to start.

    Albert@nextsmallstep

  4. Wiz
    August 27, 2010 at 8:48 am

    “It’s been written that the Marines out-patrol the Army by a factor of perhaps 20-1,” Where has this been written? And the word “perhaps” doesn’t instill any confidence in that statement. Yes there are FOB’s and not all are alike but they also have OP’s etc… I appreciate Mr. Lubin’s expierence but I’m not ready to buy that the Army is tucked away in their FOB’s playing Wii while the Marines are out patroling and trying to win the war by themselves.
    Before any of us suggest we make the FOB’s less comfortable spend some time resarching the facts…hell, just read WAR by Junger and ask yourself if what Mr Lubin is claiming jives with that embedded reporter.

  5. August 27, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    Hi Wiz: some good questions here:

    1 – Check out Bing West, other articles in Small Wars Journal, McChrystal’s comments on the FOB’s being too comfortable (remember the outrage when he ordered Burger King to close down?) plus my own time on the ground with both Army and Marines.

    2 – Last Oct I spent 11 days with an Army unit on a FOB in RC East. In those 11 days they went out on ONE patrol – in vehicles, plus ONE resupply patrol to one of their FOB’s. And in those 11 days there were NO foot patrols.

    3 – I read “War”, have been to the Kornegal, and in fact interviewed Sebastian Junger for Military.com. The situation in Korengal was unique; and while no one (including me) questioned the courage of those soldiers, I note that their highers did little to support them except drop chow by helo. Am happy to discuss Korengal, but not germane to this discussion.

    4 – And yes, the situation in RC SW run by the Marines is far different than RC East – and the similarities to the Marines being given ‘lost Anbar’ in 2006 which they turned around gets clearer every day.

    • Niel Smith
      August 30, 2010 at 11:33 am

      RE: Point #4

      The soldiers of 1-1 AD and 1-3 ID would be interested that the Marines are solely responsible for turning Anbar …. Obviously those Army fobbits had nothing at all to do with it.

      See your own sources, such as Bing West’s “The Strongest Tribe” or Jim Michael’s recent “A Chance in Hell”. http://achanceinhellbook.com/

      It was a joint effort. And in Anbar, U.S. Army units did exactly what you are calling for in this article. But Afghanistan isn’t Anbar, and Helmand has yet to be a success.

    • Soldier
      December 2, 2010 at 6:51 am

      wow. really. 11 days with ONE unit that operates from a FOB. why don’t you spend 365 with an infantry platoon that supports themselves in full spectrum operations. I can’t believe someone would disrespect a branch of our country’s military that has more boots on the ground than any other especially after the sacrifices the Army has made. grow up. Like I said, I am 14-16 hrs on and 8-10 hrs off 24/7. All dismounted operations in order to win the hearts and minds. When was your last hot shower? mine was in september chief.

  6. Dave
    August 29, 2010 at 2:06 pm

    This article helps illustrates what is wrong with COIN today. First of all it is not about ‘us” as in the US. It is about the indigenous government and its people an their relationship to each other and to the insurgents. This illustrates again the “romanticization” of COIN – e.g., that we can come into a country and conduct COIN and win the hearts and minds for us – the US. Sure, drink three cups of tea, take off your sunglasses, conduct shuras, but how about focusing on getting the Afghan security forces and government to do that with their people instead of making this all about us? I know that most do not accept what I am about to say but I will continue to beat the dead horse. We should not be conducting unilateral COIN; we should be advising, assisting, and enabling and supporting the indigenous government and its security forces to protect its people and territory from lawlessness, subversion, insurgency, and terrorism by helping them to deny sanctuary, mobility, access to resources and helping them to separate the population from the insurgents/terrorists. It is not about us, it is about the indigenous population and its relationship to its government and the insurgents.

    Second, this author illustrates the inter-service “we-they” and not only the COIN versus “Regular” military operations debate but also the false argument that somehow that one service “does” COIN better than another. Mr. Lubin provides his evidence for the Marines outpatrolling the Army by “perhaps 20 to 1” in his follow-up comments above. One, I think he has been “stockholmed” :-) by the Marines (and I mean no disrespect to the Marines who have done well co-opting the author) and two, he is also an illustration of Miles law – where you stand depends on where you sit (though he says he has been embedded with the Army I would hazard a guess to say he has spent more time with the Marines). In addition, in every unit and every service fault can be found and criticisms made about tactics and the conduct of operations. I would be surprised if he had been embedded with the same number of units from each service with each of those units having the same mission in geographic locations with similar characteristics. Of course what I just wrote in the last sentence is nearly impossible because the geographic characteristics and the nature of the insurgency is not the same everywhere you go and every unit does not have the same mission. There is no one size fits all or cookie cutter template (except that the solutions to problems and success must be indigenously produced and not externally imposed). But the “we-they mindset” that this author perpetuates is unhelpful and wrong. Of course I agree with the criticism of the photo he references from the LA Times but I would bet we could find just as many similar mistakes among units from the Army, the Marines, from Special Operations and even our State Department PRTs, or our Human Terrain Teams. No one is perfect.

    • Niel Smith
      August 30, 2010 at 11:27 am

      I second Dave’s comments above. The 20-1 comment is insulting and misleading. Source please, beyond your own anecdotes?

      Mr. Lubin’s N=1 sampling for frequency of Army patrolling is a poor metric. Are some Army units FOB-bound? Yes. But the vast majority are out and about as much as the USMC. Shows poor research by Mr. Lubin and insults all those Army soldiers who have been doing exactly what he describes.

      Bleh. Poorly sourced inter-service sniping taking away from what could have been a good discussion.

  7. August 30, 2010 at 3:22 pm

    Everyone should read this and then run out and buy a copy of Three Cups of tea. I can assure I am.

    Great, naive, but do what you have to do, don’t trip on the way to Borders. Andrew’s observations here have little to with tactics and much to do concerning a Service bias reinforced by observations at one point in time, at one point on the ground and with one unit.

    Yes, maybe one or more of the each, but not much so. This article does little in contributing to our real goal in AF – winning. Stuff likes this fits right in to our adversary’s agit-prop’s goals, even if unintentional on their part.

    BTW, I am a former Marine as Andrew is. But, apparently, unlike him, can see a bigger picture concerning staying in one’s lane for the greater good.

    Can we do better in AF? Most certainly, but parochial “reporting” such as this is not a solution, it’s part of the problem.

    S/F
    Dave Dilegge
    Small Wars Journal

  8. August 30, 2010 at 8:22 pm

    Is our real goal in AGH, winning? Or is it more about successfully achieving our objectives there – which may not necessarily be the same thing. Winning implies clear-cut decisive victory, winners and losers which is almost the antithesis of successful Western-style COIN e.g. Kenya, Malaya, Northern Ireland and even Vietnam when the conflict was ended when the core issues were resolved, ultimately by granting the ‘insurgents’ what they wanted i.e. a degree of self-determination in the first three examples and reunification in the fourth. Maybe to say that we are in AFG to ‘win’ muddies the waters as much as thinking that COIN is all about making people like you?

    But then again, COIN is probably not the correct term for what we are doing in AFG, being a very narrow and very specific subset of broader stability operations. And in that term, ’stability’ is by far the more important term that ‘operations’ – is that what we are really striving towards in AFG: a stable nation that offers no threat to our way of life, nor safe harbours to those who might also threaten it?

  9. CGalvan
    September 2, 2010 at 8:17 am

    I just came off a contract at the US Dept. of State.I have never been combat-deployed, but have plenty of personal friends who have.

    Fact is, the civilian US Government as an entity is too inflexible, and too reliant on incentivization to perform well in every domain. Real performance comes from internally-motivated, self-starting teams, executing with enthusiasm [aggression]. While a select few in the civilian USG may have it, the services have more. Some services burn up their rank and file, either through operational intensity, or through intensely bureaucratic operations.

    What I’m getting to is, I’ve always wondered how we can convince anyone in the underdeveloped world how to act and behave when we show up in coat and tie, while they wear dish dasha and sit on the ground.What did Ghandi have to say about the Englishman’s suit? We place hard flooring where they remove their shoes and sit on swept carpeting. Dept. of State has been embracing the obese, complacent attitudes and overindulgent, Beltway lifestyle of Metropolitan DC, and exporting it all over the world. Certainly, elites in other cultures seek comfort and leisure time, but it has been a trademark of Western diplomacy to embrace a pleasurable life over a strenuous one.

    The failure lies in a poor self-examination, as MAJ Gant advised, “[y]ou damn well better
    know yourself, because they know you” (14). How many of our overachieving general staff and diplomatic corps have shimmied up the ladder due to their self-confidence under risk to self and livelihood, and mastery of chaotic, dark-age lifestyles? Anybody can spot a bureaucrat a mile away, which is why Kabul remains a distant joke to the provincial Afghani.

    In essence, and to skip over some more thorough explanation, the USG represents America. The warfighter and Executive Branch employee each represent America. We as a nation have become so far removed from squalor and the beauty of the wild earth that we can no longer understand another nation’s reasons for carving out mud homes and washing in open streams. Our future will be reminiscent of the decline of Rome, unless we invoke a great awakening, either through perseverance in trying times, or self-determined philosophical rebirth.

  10. Mike Ligon
    September 20, 2010 at 11:00 am

    Having 3 sons follow their pop into the Corps I am obviously pleased to have followed Gen. Mattis and the Corps’ smart way of fighting both wars. However many tactical successes we have – and they have been increasingly many- one cannot fail to read between the electoral obfuscation of Eikenberry to see the culture has, is, and will be beyond the worth of our investment. Couple that with the incredibly strategic bumbling by multiple administrations and the very basic insurmountable premise that we are not fighting from the moral high ground guarantees the inevitable result. Remember what Giap said to the American general after Vietnam? “It didn’t make any difference” Tactical victories, winning local hearts and minds, supporting corrupt governments haven’t resulted in victory nor will it in Iraq or Afghanistan.

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  12. Pilot
    October 2, 2010 at 10:49 am

    Bottom line. We (the Soldier/Marine/Troop)can’t conduct COIN unless it is with the heart. In order for us to do this, we must be sure that we are also prepared to “bring the wood” when the situations get bad. Our commanders and gov’t support us with all the tea in Afghanistan, and would probably even enjoy watching us turn in our cammies/ABDUs for shalwars and sandals. But when we need to bring the pain, they are absent, hesitant and affraid. The end. This is how we loose to an enemy who is willing and wanting to die for his cause. Even the soft hand needs to pack a hard fist.

  13. nobody
    October 5, 2010 at 8:28 am

    The situation in RC SW is completely different than in the rest of the country. The marines did not turn around Anbar on their own. RC East has the highest IED rate in the country and related casualties. The INS in the East are much smarter and better organized/financed than the run of the milll TB in the South. The proximity to Pakistan and their recruiting/training safe havens add to the deadly mix. We toss around the ‘COIN’ strategy very loosely. The army green beret special forces are the only organization that is fully dedicated to that process. They were designed and specifically trained to conduct what we term “COIN” for over 50 yrs. Everybody else is just reinventing the wheel to justify their budgets. If you want to end this war just deploy all the SF groups and divide the country into JSOA’s. Give the SF teams the helicopters they need, stop letting the corrupt Afghan politicians dictate our operations and give the ODA commanders on the ground a company or two of infantry to support their missions. The only unit that has ever gained respect, fear and admiration in Afghanistan has been the Green Berets. Remember when we owned the night?

    • nobody
      October 5, 2010 at 8:36 am

      The politicians have taken over this war. Their timeline for withdrawal has doomed the mission to failure. In a culture that adapts to change over periods of milleniums we are trying to shove our tribal engagement strategy down their throats at break neck speed. The generals are scurrying for anything that remotely resembles a COIN ’success’ story, ignoring the ground commanders truth. Truth is that we cannot accomplish the COIN strategy with all of Karzai’s restraints,risk adverse commanders and the irrational timeline for withdrawal. In a place where time virtually stands still we cannot speed this process up no matter how many generals try to wish it true.

      • Pilot
        October 7, 2010 at 11:06 am

        Couldn’t agree with you more. Just to add…the terms “general” and “politician” I would consider synonymous. I’ve seen with my own eyes, the discusting mix of careerism with “fighting” a war. Young officer’s skillfully pleasing thier superiors (ignorant or indifferent to the fact) no matter the cost. To the chagrin of many, I will say that this is not so prevalent in the Special Operations Community. And that is why conventional forces’ leadership HATES that community.
        But what crushes my soul with regards to this war is how operational and strategic level leadership redefine success to fit the situation or failure. When you lie to troops, they recognize it. It cuts deeper than treason.

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  17. James Williams
    October 12, 2010 at 7:56 pm

    If only America was so ‘cultural sensitive’ to Afghans back in the 80’s when they paid Pakistan to arm brutal Islamist militias – who promptly turned Afghanistan in a forgotten horror show for two decades.

    Where was your sensitivity to the tribal elders in the 90’s when your forgotten proxy warlords, narco-barons, and boy-rapists where killing them?

    Where was the sensitivity when America decided Afghans were an ‘expendable population’ that could ‘give Russia it’s own Vietnam’? Wasn’t one Vietnam enough?

    But as your President famously said, “I don’t believe that anybody is above the law. On the other hand I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.”

    And by never knowing your own complicity in evil you can neither truly fight it nor “build a relationship sufficiently deep to talk honestly about schooling, IED’s, and Taliban presence.”

    • Pilot
      October 21, 2010 at 8:19 am

      James,
      What are your references on your inference to Vietnam (other than Rambo 3 of course). Also, on Pakistan in the 80s: what do you see as a better course of action to fight off the Soviets, or should we have not?

      Not a challenge, I’m just curious what you think.
      AND I would like to know more.
      Thanks.

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    Andrew: I appreciate your insight even though I disagree on a few particulars. I do believe that the Marine Corps has found some very successful techniques for executing both SASO and COIN in RC-S. However, there are many Army Infantry and Cavalry organizations in Afghanistan that are being successful in remarkably similar ways and they are doing it without any access to a Wii, fast food, or AC. I think the important thing to remember for most readers of this article to take away is that Andrew is highlighting generally accepted keys to success for Battalion and smaller sized operations: build rapport with the ANSF, build relationships with the Afghan civilian populace, and provide the breathing room necessary to allow them to make their own future successful.

    Fellow Army Infantrymen: do not take umbrage at Andrew’s article. Instead, take it as constructive criticism toward places like BAF, KAF, and other mini-Saigons. My brother is in “The Wrong War” and I’m sure Bing would agree that he and his boys were doing things the right way.

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