Posted by: Christian | April 13, 2008

Counterinsurgency in Modern War: A Book (Chapter) Review

This will be a review of a single chapter within the edited volume Counterinsurgency in Modern Warfare, edited by Daniel Marston and Carter Malkasian (Osprey Publishing, 2008). I know Afghanistan well enough to offer some commentary on the chapter by Daniel Marston, the rest I will read out of curiosity. I’m not an aspiring COIN scholar in anyway whatsoever. My interest in COIN only relates to Afghanistan.

There are 13 chapters in the book, each by a different author, covering case studies from the beginning of the 20th century to the present:

1. British Aid to the Civil Power: Ireland 1916-21 to Palestine 1948
2. US Operations in the Philippines 1898-1948
3. The Banana Wars
4. German Partisan Operations 1939-45
5. French Operations from Indo-China to Algeria: 1945-63
6. British COIN in Malaya 1948-60
7. US Operations in Vietnam
8. British Operations in Aden
9. British Operations in Northern Ireland
10. The Rhodesian Experience
11. Israeli Operations
12. Operations in Afghanistan
13. US and British Operations in Iraq

So on to Chapter 12 : Lessons in 21st-Century Counterinsurgency: Afghanistan 2001-2007 by Daniel Marston. The post 9/11 era in Afghanistan is given a total of 21 pages in this chapter, so it obviously doesn’t go into too many micro-details. Dr. Marston only occasionally makes a point that I disagree with, and I am in broad agreement with his conclusions.

One example of an argument I disagree with is that the Panjshiri Tajik domination of the the security, intel and military ministries in the immediate post-war period played a role in alienating Pashtuns. This alienation, I and some others believe, was confined to some mostly irrelevant Pashtuns (irrelevant as in they had noting to do with the insurgency) such as those in Afghan Mellat who have (had?) very weak connections to the community. The alienation was mostly due to the behavior of Pashtun allies who used their newfound American-sourced power to marginalize, exploit and sometimes even brutalize those outside their patronage/support networks (i.e., Pacha Khan Zadran) in their areas of control. The central government did not have the presence to alienate people with at this time (to a level of resorting to violence). Marston does go on to provide the local context for the alienation of many rural Pashtuns and provides all the well-known causes. So basically I just wanted a qualifier on the “Tajik” factor. This may seem like not such a big point to make, but it just doesn’t fit into my bias against seeing national level politics as one of the most significant factors in motivating the local insurgents. I believe there has been too much attention given to elite positioning and too little to local conditions. But like I said, Marston doesn’t neglect the other factors, he just doesn’t rank them or qualify them to any significant degree.

Marston’s discussion of the PRTs is in line with most of the civil-military literature that I’ve read. I agree with all his criticisms of the PRTs, though I thought he could have talked more about how PRTs can undermine government authority and/or prevent its establishment. You will also not find the aid community’s criticisms of PRTs (i.e., the “militarization” of aid argument).

On the military front Marston provides the general narrative of the 2001-2007 time frame (not easy to do with the page number constraint) and includes a discussion of not just US/NATO/ISAF but also the ANA and the ANP. For a quick case study Marston uses Helmand and the Brits’ operations Herrick IV and V.

Marston’s conclusion is that:

The counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan was initially unsuccessful because the coalition misunderstood the potential long-term implications of its decision to send in troops; failed to recognize the scope of, and reasons for, local support of a burgeoning insurgency; and failed to understand and apply concepts of counterinsurgency, particularly in its non-military aspects.

Marston then notes the improvements that have been made but stresses the still-existing need for a “single, cohesive, consistent plan of action that could be applied across Afghanistan,” as well as the need for continued political will and the need to better understand the local communities. In this, I am in full agreement.

Reading this chapter should serve as a good introduction to, or a better understanding of, the issues that still need to be addressed. I would suggest for further reading Giustozzi’s book which I reviewed earlier.

And the price is under $19 at Amazon. It’s always nice when hardcover books are affordable. Oh, and props to Osprey Publishing for making the chapter headings within the book available on Amazon. There are so many edited volumes for sale that don’t give the individual article headings, as if we are to somehow magically divine the books’ contents.


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