POPCOIN, Ink Spots, and CT

In a the comments section of a recent post, Gulliver from Ink Spots argued the following in response to concerns that I had raised about the logic of a “Triage“-esque focus on population centers in Afghanistan.

My concern was, essentially:

But while you’re consolidating government control inside the ink spots, they are consolidating insurgent control in their “ink spots.” Why assume our ink spots will spread, but theirs will shrink?

And once you have moved on, why can’t the insurgents resume operations in their ink spots? And how do you deal with the massive legitimacy loss from the inital abandonment?

Commenter “keith” had added the point of relative resources and time:

We may have more resources, but they have more time. Plus, the Taliban’s  resource requirements are such a small fraction of NATO’s, even a near infinite resource commitment by NATO wouldn’t guarantee that NATO’s “ink spot” would grow.

Gulliver responded thusly:

BernardFinel.com » Can Population Security Work if You Abandon Big Parts of the Country?

The Taliban’s resource requirements are much smaller precisely because they operate as guerillas. In order to hold ground or govern, those requirements will balloon, perhaps not to the level required by the coalition but by an order of magnitude.

There’s no guarantee of anything, obviously, but it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where the Taliban could deny even intermittent coalition patrols and shows of force, which is how you begin to contest territory. It’s so obvious as to be taken for granted, I think, that it is much easier for the coalition and Afghan government to contest Taliban-controlled areas (to the extent that any exist) than for the Taliban to contest government-controlled areas.

There is, of course, a difference between freedom of action or intermittent presence and control. But why should we believe, in light of Helmand, that the enemy can deny terrain to the coalition when the decision is made to take it?
…I don’t know how much institutionalization of government control is required before you can expand your blot. I will say that I don’t think it’s necessary to establish responsive government or democratic legitimacy or anything like that. What is essential is that we attain (or retain) the capability to completely deny enemy influence in those areas, which is to say (after Kalyvas) that the government needs to be able to refuse the population access to the insurgents (and vice-versa), eliminating the possibility of denunciations of pro-government individuals and the related campaign of violence and intimidation (which can snowball, of course, into broader neutrality or support for the insurgency).

So I guess my point is that we really don’t need to abandon regions for so long as you seem to suggest, simply because the level of governmental competence, legitimacy, responsiveness, and sophistication in the government/coalition-controlled areas does not need to be that high.

I have to admit, I remain confused by the whole issue.  I’ve pressed other people on this issue, including my colleague Evelyn Farkas who seems to travel to Afghanistan monthly recently and is about as smart and well-connected as is humanly possible to be, but I still don’t get it.  Let me try to address this somewhat systematically:

The Logic of Legitimacy

First, I don’t understand the relationship of “ink spots” to the logic of legitimacy in population-centric counter-insurgency theory.  POPCOIN suggests a clear-hold-build model.  Clear out the insurgents.  Hold them off.  And then build responsive government institutions and an effective security apparatus to assure the legitimacy of the host government.  We are told this is a long process.  How long?  Years certainly, decades possibly.  Does anyone think that it is possible to “build” more quickly than that?  So, why do we seem to feel that it is possible to accelerate the “build” phase sufficiently to allow redeployment of forces beyond the “ink spot” that has been establish?  Or is the assumption that the “ink spot” can spread on its own, without a prior clear-hold component?

Concretely: we abandon Helmand and concentrate in Kandahar… how long until we can shift those forces back to Helmand?  Is it six months?  A year?  Five years?  Ten?  Are there different levels of effective build?  In principle, shouldn’t this be dichotomous?  Either you’ve institutionalized effective government control, or you haven’t.  And if you can do it in just a few months in a given place, then why do we assume that the whole project must last for decades?


Second, I don’t understand the relationship between POPCOIN, ink spots, and CT any longer.  Okay, so I get the logic of the COIN arguments — if you want to actually “solve” the problem, you need to establish effective government.  An “off-shore” CT approach — whack-a-mole — is, at best, a mitigation strategy.  Got it.  There is still a debate over whether the COIN approach is either possible or cost-effective, but yeah, no question if you buy the logic and are willing to pay the costs, it holds out the possibility of a more durable “solution” to the problem.  But, now, we’re not talking about that.  Because we are not willing to pay the costs to apply 3-24 countrywide in Afghanistan, and instead concentrating on population centers, we are saying that there are some parts of Afghanistan where we won’t be doing much if any COIN, but in those areas we probably won’t be doing much CT either because drone strikes and repetitive raids are likely to poison the well for future COIN activities.  Yes, no, maybe?  Or are we going to POPCOIN population centers and continue to CT elsewhere?  And if we are going to do that, then how do we handle the legitimacy issues with that approach?

In other words, if we can’t do aggressive whack-a-mole because it makes us unpopular, then we can’t do it, right?  And if we’re not going to do it, then aren’t we essentially weakening our mitigation efforts in those areas where we don’t have the forces to do POPCOIN?  And from a CT perspective, is it better to mitigate more widely? Or better to leave some parts of Afghanistan mitigation-free in order to make the success of the COIN campaign more likely?

Legitimacy and Rolling COIN

Third, what are the consequence for legitimacy of “rolling COIN”?  We will be consolidating forces in some parts of the country, abandoning others to the Taliban and associates.  How much more difficult does leaving, say, Nuristan, make it to return later?  Also, if we’re planning to only concentrate a limited time in our “ink spots,” what are the consequences in the areas where we do concentrate?  So we reinforce Kandahar, but our operation concept requires us to “roll” away after a relatively short amount of time.  In that kind of context, won’t Afghans hedge their bets rather than cast their lot with us?

This gets back to my first two concerns.  If we’re going to remain in our “ink spots” for five to ten years, then maybe we can consolidate government control in those areas, but at the cost of creating “safe havens” for insurgents and potentially AQ elsewhere.  If we’re going to shift forces after a relatively short time, then aren’t we likely to encourage Afghans to pursue a “dual loyalty” approach that will undermine our COIN campaign?

Relative Resource Requirements

Fourth, is Gulliver right in suggesting that the Taliban will have a hard time doing “build” in areas they control due to resources.  True, they have little ability to deny us access, and they can’t “clear” us.  But, I do wonder if there is any empirical reason to believe that their efforts to “build” will be as costly as ours.  As I keep mentioning, they seized and controlled the whole of the country from 1996 to 2001 with a fraction of the resources we were deploying even before the Obama surge.  They clearly had either a more efficient concept or a significant force/resource multiplier working for them.  Are we, at some level, mirror-imaging our problems onto them?  And if so are there consequences for the logic of our involvement?  And if not, then how do we explain their resilience and resurgence?

Or, let me phrase it another way — we seem to have a notion that the Taliban is effective by virtue of its ability to inspire fear.  Discussions of their resurgence often focus on their use of “night letters,” terror attacks, targeting violence, etc.  But our doctrine explicitly argues that this sort of violence is not just morally unpalatable but operationally ineffective.  Why does violence, in short, delegitimize us but seems to bolster the insurgents?  Is it just a function of insurgent vs. counter-insurgent expectations?  Is it also a function of HUMINT differences?  Is it a difference between us as outsiders and them as locals?  All of the above?  But, look, if we assume that it is all of the above, then mustn’t we also assume that this is a durable, structural condition, and that therefore claims of superior resources are illusory?


Let me return to an earlier comment.  I mentioned that if the choice is between full-blown POPCOIN and a mitigation CT strategy, I can understand the appeal of the COIN approach.  It offers the hope of a solution.  But 3-24 suggests a 20 per 1,000 ratio of counter-insurgents to population — or 650,000 troops in Afghanistan.  We are never going to get there.  Yes, yes, I know.  That is just a guideline.  But damn, isn’t my guideline.  It is the guideline of 3-24.  It is Petraeus’ guideline.  And I know of no reason to assume Afghanistan is an easy case.  Indeed, isn’t it pretty damn obvious given the history of conflict, grinding poverty, deeply entrench corruption, and ethnic divides that Afghanistan is a hard case?  Well, it is obvious to me.  Anyone who says that Afghanistan is going to require fewer resources than previous cases is insane.  If anything, we should assume Afghanistan would require the high end of the estimate range.  But nevermind, let’s assume 650,000 is the right number to do a 3-24-style campaign — again based on the canonical document of COIN advocates, not of COIN critics.

If that is the case, isn’t it obvious that the choice isn’t between well-crafted COIN and imperfect (due to intel and logistical limitations) CT, but between a genuinely half-assed COIN campaign and an imperfect CT approach?  Which is why I worry that we are stacking ill-considered assumptions about “rolling COIN” and ink spots on top of the already heroic assumptions embedded in 3-24.

I am really try to understand all of this… but I just don’t get it.  What am I missing?

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