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COIN vs. Hearts and Minds: The Real War in Afghanistan

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To say that the U.S. military faces incredible obstacles in Afghanistan is an understatement: international support for the war has crumbled, the Taliban insurgency remains strong, and President Karzai has lashed out against Western involvement. Yet the military now confronts another challenge in Afghanistan -- a challenge that poses perhaps the greatest threat to achieving success in the war.

Recent reports suggest that U.S. Special Forces badly botched a February raid in the village of Khatabeh. While details of the case are still coming to light, Special Forces appear to have doctored evidence to conceal a mistaken attack on civilians. The Khatabeh case -- just one of a number of Special Forces attacks on civilians -- illustrates the fundamental disconnect between COIN, the U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine, and the effort to win "hearts and minds" in Afghanistan. If the U.S. is truly committed to winning Afghan support, the military must rethink the degree of autonomy it has granted Special Forces under COIN. Without increased oversight, the military will remain unable to garner the popular support needed to undermine the Taliban insurgency.

COIN's emphasis on providing Special Forces with greater autonomy has deepened the divide between coalition forces and Afghan civilians. Since implementing COIN, the military has given Special Forces an unprecedented level of independence from the traditional command and control structure. While such independence allows Special Forces more freedom of action on the ground, it also gives them dangerous operational leeway that has far too often resulted in civilian casualties. According to Amnesty International, more than half of all coalition-caused civilian casualties reported last year occurred during Special Forces operations. And despite the high number of casualties, Special Forces have faced little pressure to assume responsibility for their actions. A 2009 UN report noted that Special Forces "operate with little or no accountability," engendering resentment among the local population.

Civilian casualties as a result of Special Forces operations, and the lack of accountability surrounding these casualties, have severely damaged efforts to make inroads among Afghan civilians and have had devastating implications for the success of the war. A 2007 Environics poll noted that with increased civilian deaths in Afghanistan came diminished popular support for U.S. forces and a strengthened resistance movement. In a war in which the U.S. has struggled to win the support of the Afghan population, civilian casualties -- let alone casualties surrounded by claims of a cover-up -- are likely to galvanize support for the Taliban and provide fodder for insurgents. Ultimately, in a battle to win the trust and support of the Afghan people, the U.S. military must reconsider how its Special Forces are managed.

Fortunately, General McChrystal is beginning to recognize the need to reign in Special Forces. In 2009, McChrystal created new rules of engagement designed to limit civilian casualties. And just last month, McChrystal agreed to bring most Special Forces units under his control. However, McChrystal's efforts have not gone far enough. Even under these new guidelines, Special Forces continue to operate with impunity. There is little accountability for those units involved in civilian attacks and some units remain outside of the command and control structure.

McChyrstal's goal moving forward should be to introduce mechanisms to increase accountability and transparency within Special Forces operations. Should civilian deaths happen, the military must hold credible and transparent investigations. If violations are deemed to have occurred, unit commands must be held responsible. Such actions will prevent criticism that Special Forces are allowed to act above the law -- a common complain among Afghan civilians and political officials, as well as international human rights organizations.

Further, McChrystal should look to place Delta Force and Navy SEALS, two Special Forces units excluded from the reforms initiated last month, in line with the rest of the military. Considering that these elite units engage in some of the most difficult missions, their actions have even more reason to be bound by the traditional rules of engagement.

Detractors will argue that Special Forces require more discretion in the means and methods needed to identify and capture Taliban leaders. COIN equips the U.S. military to defeat the insurgency by allowing Special Forces to take whatever means necessary to wrest control from insurgents. However, defeating the Taliban militarily is only one element of the mission in Afghanistan. Equally important is the need to win popular support for U.S. intervention. High rates of civilian casualties at the hands of Special Forces put this objective in jeopardy.

While some elements of COIN have been proven innovative, the doctrine has fallen short in its ability to garner support for the U.S. military among civilian populations. In the wake of the Khatabeh incident, then, the U.S. must take greater control over Special Forces operations or risk losing the popular support that is so critical for achieving some measure of success in the war.

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