Wednesday, March 10, 2010

COIN and coalitions

At last week's conference on the lessons of Vietnam (and their potential application to Iraq and Afghanistan) organized by Texas Tech and SAIS, a participant asked a broad question to which he could not find an answer. I happen to have asked myself that question too, and could not find an answer either.

The question is: Has a coalition ever won in a counterinsurgency? I mean here a coalition with some sizable allied contingents. Insurgencies seem to be the exact type of conflict (because they tend to last longer than other types of wars, do not rely only on military means, and require flexible tactics that in turn necessitate coordination between different forces) that are most likely to make a coalition implode.

Iraq could be potentially one case, although it is too early to tell. But other cases?..


  1. Great stuff here, guys:

  2. My general conviction is that second to 'don't fight a land war in Asia', another principle of war is 'don't fight a counterinsurgency as a coalition'. Still, arguably the model COIN campaign that is Malaya was a coalition effort, as it included Australian and (I believe) NZ troops. More broadly, isn't every COIN campaign in one way a 'coalition' effort in that it binds an intervening government with a host-nation government, requiring a sustained unity of purpose and of vision for some level of success? Perhaps this would be to push the definition of coalition though...

  3. David,

    Point well taken on Malaya. Thinking of the alliance between the host-nation government and an intervening third party is interesting, for it does share some characteristics with "classic" coalitions: the difficulty to coordinate military/intelligence/diplomatic effort, the temptation of free-riding, and the necessity to convince a partly reluctant constituency (or insurgency would have not taken root...) as to the legitimacy of war.

    What would set this type of "coalitions" apart, though, is that one of the members' (the host-nation) survival is at stake. It strikes me as very different from what usually happens in regular coalitions. Unless one stretches the definition of national interest or "war of necessity"...

  4. Here's another one: has there ever been a victory in a counterinsurgency when the Host Nation has not been a member of the COIN alliance? Because that's basically your situation in Afghanistan.

  5. What do you mean by "win," Alma? What do you mean by "counterinsurgency?" What do you mean by "coalition?"

    That's not just dancing on the grave of semantics, but rather the need to find an agreed scenario to then compare to the rest of the literature.

    Obviously, during the long epoch of Colonialism, nation states typically were set at seizing power for their unique capitals.

    Moreover, one wonders whether august best practices such as the Razzia -- while quite utile to the French -- would be considered "COIN" today (probably because it actually worked, unlike today's nonsense).

    If one thinks of the Raj as a polyglot part of the Empire, one that mixed privateers, formal military units of the Crown, Indian tribal formations and, at times, even constabularies from elsewhere in the Commonwealth, was not perhaps the long colonial experiment in India possibly a "coalition?"

    Callwell might have considered it to be so, but he didn't put it in those 21st century terms.

    Was the joint German/Italian/puppet government rule in Albania an example of "COIN?"

    What about the Commonwealth's answer to the rebellions in Kenya or Zimbabwe?

    If Chin Peng and Karl Hack are right, then Malaya probably wasn't even a good example of how we think of "COIN," at least not in its 21st century American guise.

    Which is to say, perhaps we need to get to the causative forces of these insurrections, determine what actually worked (this is contested in so many conflicts), and then see if it was a "coalition" that did it.

    I know it's trendy to discuss "Post-Maoist" revolutions, but the definitional requirements probably should extend to pre-Maoist, too.

    If we demarcate from consideration all the insurrections before Mao and, say, everything from the USSR/Afghanistan conflict to the present as post-Maoist, then do we have enough examples to even reach a solid conclusion about the efficacy of coalitions today?

    Afghanistan, Afghanistan II, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland, Cambodia afer the eviction of the Khmer Rouge, Sierra Leone, Congo, Algeria II, Somalia, Kosovo etc, etc, etc -- I'm not sure I see a whole lotta Maoist-style revolutions, but also very few Coalitions.


  6. SNLII: I know, I know, the question is rather meaningless without a proper definition of the terms. I guess I was trying to not be too much of a political scientist here and throw instead a wide-ranging puzzle to see how fast the readership could solve it (or argue convincingly for its irrelevance).

    Serious examination of the issue would require proper definition of "win" (do only military victories count or also negotiated settlements, if they address some of the concerns that prompted the intervention in the first place?); a proper definition of "coalition" (and I would need here to be more familiar with the literature on coalitions and alliances, but I can see formal and informal coalitions, coalitions where partners are more or less equal troop contributors, etc.). Same goes for "insurgency."

    But out of curiosity, why would we "demarcate for consideration all the insurrections before Mao"? Why should we assume that this divide is relevant for the issue of coalitions?

  7. It's not relevant to the nature of coalitions, but rather of the nature of the war. If we assume that the enemy gets a vote in the success or failure of a mission, then how have the enemies changed?

    If we assume that the role the population plays in the sustaining of these post-Maoist insurgencies has changed (lessened, actually, to the point that the immediate, territorial "people" are NOT the prize to all the contestants in the federalized cause), then obviously the role a coalition might play also changes (or not).

    I guess that I'm not persuaded that a coalition fundamentally would be less successful prosecuting a COIN war; perhaps part of our problem has been an inability to buy legitimacy with these ersatz coalitions, but that's a different question.

    Perhaps if we began by ranking the importance of certain best practices against the many actors in these post-Maoist conflicts we might arrive at the point where we could say, "Yes, it's quite dire if you go to war with a coalition."

    But I'm not sure that we're at that point. And, anyway, I don't much like a lot of these comparative games. Each conflict is unique because of the erosion in the social sediment caused by time, history, culture, caste, et al.

    Wars are unique, and COIN efforts especially so. This sort of question might be relevant if we determine how important a coalition would be at helping or harming a mission to address the causative forces of the rebellion.

    But since I doubt we even have a common understanding of these forces (or a shared notion of how to use military power and other forms of suasion to mitigate or solve them), the coalition angle is meaningless.

    It's like a bunch of guys sitting around a bar arguing over whether Babe Ruth in his prime could hit 60 homeruns this season or betting on the odds a tiger would have against a polar bear.

    Babe ain't gonna get signed as a free agent and no one is putting a polar bear and a tiger together in a cage match except maybe Fox.


  8. Holy crap, SNLII, you pre-empted me. I was going to suggest Lion versus Tiger.

  9. Lion all the way.

    Still, the question is not as trivial as some of the last comments would suggest. Take the case of Britain: it's entire legacy with counterinsurgency, whether we buy it or not, is based on campaigns where it was the 'top dog'. In contrast, its experience in Iraq and now in Afghanistan saw British forces work as one part of a greater coalition, bringing in added complexity and constraints. And the issue goes both ways: see US frustration with British policy in Basra around 2007 or the frustration within NATO regarding uneven exposure to risk. All of this is fairly obvious. Operating in this manner, as part of a coalition, will also be the norm for (again) obvious reasons.

    So I think there are legitimate reasons to discuss the effects of coalitions on the conduct of protracted counterinsurgency or stabilisation operations and, if you agree, one of the first tasks would be to survey past practice and see whether there are any significantly successful or unsuccessful precedents.

    That is not to say that terms do not have to be carefully defined and placed within their specific historical, social and political context. Still, this does not have to lead to analytical paralysis.

  10. I don't agree with that because the currents of history, time, culture, language, caste, theology, et al, tend to wash away these "trivial" concerns the closer one looks deeply, and with some cultural competence, at the local insurgencies.

    Basra was NOT like the rest of Iraq. The nature of the Coalition's enemies, their stated grievances, their intra-Shiite civil war, their longstanding union radicalization efforts, the Mahdist theological current, the sort of criminal activities -- all this made the part of the south held by the British unique.

    If the US military overlapped this AO or had a pacification strategy that exasperated the problems in Basra to the detriment of the British there, then I could understand questions about Coalitions.

    The real problem perhaps was that the structure of the "Coalition" was the issue, but rather British competence in articulating a strategy that worked in that particular AO.

    Eventually, the intra-Shiite civil war sorted itself out, largely without much help from the rest of the Coalition. Iraqi historians, journalists and warlords might suggest the same phenomenon played out across the rest of Iraq from 2005-07, largely without the Coalition playing a tangible role except getting in the way.

    I'm a bit bemused by what some might consider "analytical paralysis." One might assume that arriving at some notion of what is causing the rebellion, then designing measures of force or suasion to mitigate or "solve" these causative forces would be the primary goal of the counter-revolutionary.

    Perhaps the arch enemy of the US-led Coalition in Iraq has NOT been the various feral criminal bands, sectarian militias, outside spies, foreign fighters or lack of Da'wa governance in cabinet or across the bureaucracy. Not even the messiness of dealing with a Coalition of the Willing.

    The real enemy has been an inability for that Coalition to determine what was causing the violence and how to solve it. Since I side with most Iraqis in their belief that they solved their own problems their own way in a nasty civil war in which our forces merely codified the results as part of the so-called "Surge," I happen to think discussing the role of the Coalition structure in all this so quaint, so arrogant, so meaningless as to wonder why we continue to debate it.

    I mean, if we're going to do that, then let's debate whether the Poles' rifles were better for COIN work than the M-4.

  11. The real question of Coalitional impotency is in Afghanistan because of NATO. Much of the time, one hears about a lack of resources being the primary issue within the Coalition -- a lack of manpower, money and whatnot from Europe (mostly) to prosecute the campaign the Americans want to run.

    While the structure of a Coalition might play some part in that (I have my doubts), the real problems are more prosaic: Other nations spent their peace divided in the 1990s and don't have the military reach or capacity of the US; politically the mission in OEF is more difficult to sell to their constituents and likely counterproductive to their quiet counter-insurgencies at home against restive Muslims irked by the US-led military policies in Iraq and Afghanistan; the call for our European allies to spend more money on an unpopular war comes during a bitter global recession, just when they would rather cut back expenditures and time to focus on domestic economic problems; the lack of competence and profound levels of corruption in the Karzai government that have helped to leave it estranged from our NATO allies eight years into battle.

    It seems silly to then pass over these specific problems to speak in bland generalities about what Coalitions can or can't do in complex post-Maoist insurgencis involving many dozens of actors, each with different goals to achieve at the expense of the Coalition.

    There's so much more that's important, including determining a strategy that actually might link realistic foreign policy goals to the horses of force and suasion.

    Since we haven't managed to do that, and it's probably not the fault of the Coaliton but rather our incurious generals and the dull-witted think tanks that fluffer them, I guess I don't really think the debate has much potential as anything more than a bar game.


  12. I don't think discussing 'coalitions and COIN' precludes awareness of the many factors alluded to in your posts. To the contrary.

  13. The real enemy has been an inability for that Coalition to determine what was causing the violence and how to solve it.

    There's so much more that's important, including determining a strategy that actually might link realistic foreign policy goals to the horses of force and suasion.

    Precisely: isn't it more difficult to reach a common understanding of what causes the violence and how to solve it (two complex--to say the least--questions) when you are dealing with several actors (a coalition) rather than a single one?

    I agree with David that having a discussion on a topic as general as "coalitions and COIN" does not mean we rule out of the picture all the other factors relevant to "winning" or "losing" (again, to be defined). Of course, every situation is unique... But this does not preclude finding patterns in how nations/organizations behave and interact.

  14. I think we're ignoring the purpose for a Coalition.

    The purpose of the Coalition is not to bring in more resources (money, "boots on the ground", etc). The purpose of the Coalition is to sustain our claims to the legitimacy of the operation. If there is a Coalition of nations from "the world community" then the operation has a plausible claim to legitimacy and we can reassure China, Russia, and others that we are not going to undertake aggressive military action without significant international legal justification, which we demonstrate by the size of the Coalition that plays along. It's tougher to make a credible argument that an action violates international law when 30 countries band together and do it cooperatively.

    I think the more important question to ask is whether the benefits of a Coalition effort outweigh the inefficiencies of cobbling together a convoluted command structure, working through language barriers amongst your own allies, and apportioning out mission sets to 30 different coalition members who have 30 different electorates with 30 different moods that could result in any one of those 30 forces being downsized, underfunded, or heavily restricted in how they are utilized.

    When, prior to Desert Storm, was the last time that a coalition was assembled purely for legitimacy, rather than to amass more combat power? If you can think of one or more, were coalitions formed any of those instances to wage a counterinsurgency operation?

  15. Schmedlap:

    Was the goal in constructing a coalition for the invasion of Iraq to reassure (demonstrate legitimacy) to the international community, or to reassure the American public that the invasion was either (a) legitimate because other nations were involved, and/or (b) a wise thing to do because other nations were involved?


  16. Both, but I think (a) was more critical (lesson learned from Desert Storm). (b) was more of a reaction to domestic criticism.

    Take, for example, support by countries that lend no troops. This doesn't square well with the American audience that says, "but they've got no skin in the game!" However, on the international stage, even a contribution of funding, overflight rights, et cetera, are a demonstration by the donor country that they recognize the legitimacy of the operation.

  17. I think you're overestimating the American audience. Support by countries that supply minimal troops allows the administration to rack up numbers: "X" number of countries have contributed troops to the coalition. Nevermind that country X contributed 10 troops to the coalition, all in non-combat roles. And quite frankly, while funding, overflight rights, etc., might be more valuable than troops (what would you rather have - Japanese funding and Turkish overflight rights or twelve Fijian soldiers?) I'm not sure the American public does (or can?) compute that calculus. I'd be interested in the "lesson learned from Desert Storm," because there I recall the criticism that Japan was not paying the appropriate amount given how much of its oil it received from the Gulf. I don't recall such criticism in the Iraq War, even though attention to the coalition (e.g., its size and composition) was far more prominent.


  18. ADTS - Either you got my response exactly backwards or I got your question exactly backwards.

    I interpreted your question as (a) legitimacy = international law issue and (b) "wise thing to do" = argument for domestic support.

    I never, ever overestimate anything among the American people (at least not in any endeavors that are positive or worthwhile). They get dumber, fatter, more in debt, and more perverse with every passing minute.

  19. Schmedlap:

    There's certainly the possibility that I got your response exactly backwards, and/or am doing so right now. What I simply meant was that one can try to achieve legitimacy with two entities broadly defined: international (other states) and domestic (the American people). Domestically, one can try to achieve legitimacy to demonstrate something is either intelligent and/or just. I suppose it's no different than most public policy debates: you can argue based on utility (something's intelligent to do) or morality (something's just to do). There's no reason in said debates you can't argue on grounds of utility *and* morality - why not go for both rather than just one or, worse, expose painful tradeoffs betweeen utility and morality? Allies show something's useful (intelligent to do) - because if others are doing something, it's probably the smart thing to do - and something's just - because if others are doing something, then it's probably the right thing to do. To me, at least, that's generally the way the memes proceed. You hear less about the costs and benefits of, say, cobbled command and control structures versus the benefits of overflight rights; the concrete is not oft the issue.

    Hopefully I wasn't a ship passing you in the night on this one - apologies if I was/am.