Tossing the COIN

As an operational strategy based on the concept of winning hearts and minds, rather than simply killing the enemy, Canada’s counter-insurgency (COIN) efforts in Afghanistan have been seen by many as a way to help ordinary Afghans get on with their lives and help the Afghan government regain control of its restive regions. With the withdrawal of combat troops from the NATO ISAF mission, and a transition to a much smaller training mission, the Canadian Forces have clearly “tossed the COIN” to Afghanistan and its security forces.

And Canada is not alone. NATO allies and partner nations have begun to either fully or partially withdraw their troops from the ISAF mission. Of particular note, the United States, a leader of the COIN effort in Afghanistan, has signaled doubt in the further validity of a COIN strategy by moving towards a more counter-terrorism based focus for its troops there.
Pundits continue to debate the legacy of the human and financial sacrifices made as this decade-long chapter in Canadian history closes. Meanwhile, DND’s force planning experts are working towards preparing for future missions that will most likely be fiscally scrutinized multinational endeavors challenged by hybrid threats.
With a new generation of battle-hardened leaders accustomed to a decade of a particular type of war, army planners have inherited an institution that can no longer focus on bygone operational strategies, such as COIN. Playing the role of beat cop/ social worker in an armed nation building exercise is no longer valid. How land forces prepare to bridge this new gap between emerging policy and execution – an exercise in identifying future political ends and the corresponding ways (operating concepts) and means (capabilities) to successfully achieve future missions – is the question.
With the sudden obsolescence of a decade-long accepted operational strategy, established mindsets and operating concepts within the land forces will be challenged. It is important to consider two potential future security challenges.
With solid political initiative being shown, Canadian land forces will be asked to refocus on what are now, in my opinion, somewhat atrophied skills for operating in the Canadian North – the basic skills level in the CF are nowhere near that of their predecessors for cold weather ops.
Mission-relevant operating concepts, learned and practiced in Afghanistan, will need to be adapted to this operating environment. The concept of a ‘Whole of Government’ approach, for example, will help realize Canada’s political ambitions in its Northern regions by asserting sovereignty and security with players from government and non-governmental organizations.
In another case, the CF can be expected to assist allies in responding to global and regional flash points where both state and non-state actors seek to deny access to the common areas of our globe (sea, air, space, cyberspace). Canadian expeditionary capabilities will be found to be lacking for this. As the United States Marine Corp works to regain its specialized expeditionary capabilities, so too will the Canadian Army need to revisit its working relationship with both domestic and allied navies, air forces and intelligence organizations.
The bottom line is that COIN is on its way out. However, as the Canadian army leadership and government veers away from a strategy that has become “tacticized” by a decade of war in Afghanistan, it is important to note that, as an operational strategy, COIN will never be irrelevant.
While our troops remain to train the next generation of Afghan security forces, the Army as a whole must move on. Understanding that the public has little patience left for nation building exercises in hostile environments far from home, the next few decades may see troops responding to flash crises characterized by state-on-state friction and hybrid threats – both at home and across the world. The hard lessons learned in Afghanistan cannot be lost and must be put through both Canadian and NATO Lessons Learned processes. All this must be coordinated together with a serious mental shift for land forces at all levels. The CF’s and DND’s agility to observe, orient, decide and act for this shift will define the role of its land forces for the next decade, if not longer.

Marko Babic is an army reservist and an independent analyst who is conducting futures analysis for NATO.
© FrontLine Defence 2011