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A Flip of the COIN

Gates Is Right About NATO's Counterinsurgency Deficiencies; Though A Matter of Will, Not Skill

By Steve Schippert | January 18, 2008

Defense Secretary Robert Gates voiced candid concern regarding the counterinsurgency (COIN) capabilities and tactics being employed by NATO forces currently in Afghanistan. And while it appears to have ruffled the feathers of some NATO allies the wrong way, Secretary Gates was correct in what he said and also correct in the decision to voice the concerns. In Wednesday's Los Angeles Times, the Pentagon chief said, "I'm worried we're deploying [military advisors] that are not properly trained and I'm worried we have some military forces that don't know how to do counterinsurgency operations." He has good cause to be worried. And regardless of the angry reactions and dented pride of some NATO leaders, denial will not address the problem.

Many articles have been written about Gates' words, the reactions and the 'controversy' his comments are said to have caused. However, while each article covers with precision what was said and what was rebutted, few if any manage to describe or explain the actual problem at the source of the Secretary of Defense's concerns.

The original Los Angeles Times story comes closest by conveying that "an overreliance on heavy weaponry, including airstrikes" has Defense Department officials and military commanders concerned that such tactics actually may be "contributing to rising violence" in southern Afghanistan. This region is primarily overseen by British, Canadian and Dutch forces who, to their credit, have at least embraced a combat role - something that cannot be said of other NATO allies with troops in Afghanistan.

But it is left at that, stopping well short of explaining to the public news consumer exactly why this approach is often counterproductive. More to the point, in stopping short of a full explanation, the reader also cannot understand the often (domestic) political reasons such less effective tactics are employed by our NATO allies who do accept combat roles in a combat zone. To fully understand this is to also then fully understand why the reaction from some allies was so swift and so pointed.

The problem with "an overreliance on heavy weaponry, including airstrikes" in a counterinsurgency effort is the increased collateral damage associated with such large-blast weapons. In Afghanistan, as in Iraq, the enemy enmeshes himself within the civilian population without the distinguishing marks of a uniform. When the Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists over-run a village and take it over in Helmand Province, driving the enemy back out with heavy weapons also takes its toll on the local civilian population as well, even though extraordinary efforts are taken by Western eyes to identify and isolate an un-uniformed Taliban enemy from Afghan friends. This is an incredibly difficult task only exacerbated by the effects of distance and obstruction by the structures of Afghan villages.

The blast radius of large 'standoff' weaponry - such as artillery - is quite effective and, therefore, often too effective in urban terrain. Such standoff weaponry generally targets an area or structure, whereas an individual soldier within a fire team in close range can discriminate with greater detail. While individual soldiers do call in the strikes after identifying the enemy, the extensive employment of - or "overreliance on" - such weapons and tactics reduces the casualty risk of the assaulting force demonstrably. The relative safety afforded assaulting NATO forces in using such 'standoff' weapons is also politically enticing for domestic leaderships at home in Europe. And therein lies the true rub: Political Will v. Most Effective Tactics. Not "training" or knowing "how to conduct counterterrorism operations."

When Secretary Gates says publicly he is "worried" that "some" NATO allies lack "training" and "don't know how to do counterinsurgency operations," he is being partly honest. For this is indeed true. But such training requires the impetus of policy - and policy, by nature, requires political will. And it is the political will of many of our NATO allies that is failing.

As evidenced in Iraq, successful counterinsurgency operations requires the cooperation of the civilian public. They know their neighborhoods, villages and towns. And they know the enemy who has put himself among them. Increasingly including this population among the enemy casualties is counterproductive to winning their cooperation and support and risks allied NATO forces as being seen as the outsider forces who do more harm to them than good.

Attaining this cooperation - absolutely necessary for a successful counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign - requires a minimal usage of stand-off large-blast weapons and regular usage of combat forces in close combat, where the enemy can be better discerned and the civilian population more effectively - and visibly - protected. This brings with it the necessary increased casualty risk factor for long-term success. It is this risk factor that is deemed unacceptable to those criticizing Robert Gates' comments about "training."

And this is the root cause of the counterproductive "overreliance on heavy weaponry, including airstrikes." It simply nets fewer NATO casualties. In the short term. For it also makes any ultimate success seem well beyond the horizon.

The real or perceived acceptable casualty risk is debilitatingly low for effective and successful combat operations in the long-term against a highly motivated Taliban and al-Qaeda enemy, most of which in sharp contrast seek the glory associated with martyrdom in battle. With the exceptions of Britain, Canada and the Netherlands, this acceptable combat casualty risk factor is precisely zero. This is why so many allies in theater have accepted only non-combat roles.

These realities combined are precisely what Secretary Gates is driving at. Our allies' political leaderships have failed to communicate to their respective domestic populations that the fight in Afghanistan is necessary, requires their nation's collective engagement, and may carry with that a level of combat casualties. Perhaps they perceive their populations will never support this reality or its necessity. Perhaps the political leaders themselves do not support such. Either way, it is less a pure matter of training and more a matter of political will.

The angry public reaction from some corners carries that passion not because of questioned tactics, but because of questioned will.

Secretary Gates has communicated at least the concerns of tactics to allies privately. He said of one such occasion, "No one at the table stood up and said: 'I agree with that.'" It is quite possible that he may have gone a layer deeper toward the source and addressed the matter of political will in private as well.

While Secretary Gates normally speaks with measured words, his military commanders in the field have been more direct in expressing their frustration - a frustration has been simmering for some time.

But while Secretary Gates will publicly refer to 'training' and counterinsurgency 'know how,' the matter at hand is clearly one of will, not skill. Furthermore, it is a matter in the hands of our allies' political leadership, not in the performance of their fielded forces who operate as directed. The commanders know it. Secretary Gates knows it. And the NATO political leaders retorting and taking offense to criticism of "training" and "tactics" know it all too well. They simply dare not say it. Instead, they respond safely within the public cover the US Secretary of Defense graciously provided by stopping short of addressing some of our allies' flagging will.

One thing is for certain. The recent decision to send in an additional 3,200 seasoned United States Marines, who decidedly "know how to do counterinsurgency operations," is indicative of Washington's lack of confidence that there will be any shift in our allies' political will any time soon. Not even against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.