Karl W. Eikenberry: COIN in Afghanistan and civil-military relations

On 18 September, Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry visited IFS, and discussed whether key assumptions of US counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine applied in Afghanistan.

​Karl W. Eikenberry, serving as US ambassador to Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011 and commander of the US-led coalition Operation Enduring Freedom from 2005 to 2007, questioned the extent to which key assumptions of US COIN doctrine proved to be valid in Afghanistan. 

Comments were provided by Commodore Jan Berglund, commandant of the Norwegian Defence Command and Staff College, and Ambassador Kai Eide, former United Nations Special Representative to Afghanistan.

In his introduction, Ambassador Eikenberry provided a background to the December 2009 civilian and troop surges order by President Obama, and on the US Army's and Marine Corps' COIN doctrine. The main part of the talk was devoted to three key assumptions derived from this doctrine and embedded in the civil-military campaign plan developed to deliver the troop surge in Afghanistan: 

  1. that the overarching goal of protecting the population was clear and attainable; 
  2. that the Afghan Government would become more accountable and politically legitimate with higher levels of US and international support; and 
  3. that the application of US COIN doctrine in Afghanistan was aligned with the political-military approach preferred by the Karzai administration. 

In Eikenberry's perspective, these assumptions were incorrect in Afghanistan.

Ambassador Eikenberry concluded that the American experience in Afghanistan is a reminder that war should only be waged in pursuit of clear political goals, and that the war has demonstrated the risk of senior commanders becoming intellectually rigid; the COIN paradigm was applied with an unquestioning zeal. Finally, notwithstanding the limits of intervention in Afghanistan, the techniques and procedures put into practice should not categorically be rejected. Before launching a future COIN campaign, however, there should be a rigorous and transparent debate about the proposed ends, ways and means. 

Commodore Berglund commented that COIN may have been the wrong doctrine for operations in Afghanistan, and that experience from Afghanistan has highlighted the danger of military doctrinal principles becoming, in part, a substitute for strategy. He said the hasty developed NATO COIN doctrine partly served to ensure the interoperability of forces, and that its implementation suffered from a lack of coordination between civil and military efforts and a lack of appreciation of the complexity of actors involved. Finally, Berglund raised the question of whether such campaigns should be civilian-led.​

Ambassador Eide commented that the civilian expertise required to make the surge in Afghanistan work was lacking, both in terms of numbers and knowledge. There has generally been an imbalance between the civilian and military component of the international engagement in favour of the latter, he said, and real efforts at nation-building were initiated too late. He also addressed problems associated with the limited time perspective of the military engagement, and President Karzai's dilemma between nurturing the international partnership and the need to protect Afghan sovereignty. The fundamental problem in Afghanistan, Eide concluded, has been a lack of understanding of Afghan society. 

Summary by Ida Maria Oma

Publisert 18. september 2014 00:00.. Sist oppdatert 28. juni 2016 11:07.