COIN in Foreign Affairs

June 17, 2010 By Eric Peckham

 width=The current issue of Foreign Affairs features an enlightening evaluation of counterinsurgency strategy by experts Eli Berman, Joseph Felter, and Jacob Shapiro that highlights the necessity of civilian-led governance programs to combating terrorism long term. In “Constructive COIN: How Development Can Fight Radicals,” the three explored the various means of fighting the threat of insurgents and terrorists overseas to determine what really makes a difference. Using data on the fluctuation in levels of violence, they researched military action, economic development, and governance improvement efforts in search of a correlation between these efforts and drops in insurgent and terrorist attacks.

They reiterate that, as coalition forces quickly discovered in their counterinsurgency work in Afghanistan and Iraq, seeking to defeat the enemy through solely military means fails, and perhaps even backfires. This narrowly-focused approach is compared to “mowing the grass,” for after soldiers cleared a region of hostile combatants, they would begin popping back up again and the region would sink back into violence and instability.

So, while military operations are necessary to maintaining security, they are only one piece of a very complex puzzle. Berman, Felter, and Shapiro approached economic development efforts, which—while widely understood to reduce the fuel that keeps insurgents and extremists going—do not always correspond to a reduction in violence in the area. Why doesn’t establishing security and improving the local job market draw more people out of militant groups and back into peaceful society? Their research uncovered that although these two pieces can help, they are not the complete solution.

Investigating the factors that make militant groups grow successful, they evaluated a long list of such groups and found that the major difference between major and minor terrorist organizations with the same ideology was their ability to provide services to locals. In countries lacking a stable and competent government, these groups gain supporters by taking over the role of local officials. When given the option of siding with weak Western-backed governments or with regional militants who can provide reliable social services to their family, many in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere opt for the latter.

Thus, as the authors expose, counterinsurgency is only effective when the problem is approached from all sides. Military tactics and economic development alone are not enough. Efforts like interagency Provincial Reconstruction Teams, the State Department’s engagement with foreign governments, and USAID’s numerous programs in building accountable, effective governments in trouble spots like Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon are essential to defusing insurgent and terrorist groups. With sufficient investment in such activities we can remove the demand for those groups, devastating their recruiting ability and driving them towards collapse.