January 01, 2012

Both Sides of the COIN

Christopher Sims

In his analysis of the shortcomings of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, Bing West offers a compelling assessment that, as he writes, "counterinsurgency as nation building became a Sisyphean mission" ("Groundhog War," September/October 2011). But the real problem is not with counterinsurgency doctrine itself but rather with how it is being applied. U.S. military planners and officers should not entirely abandon counterinsurgency, as West predicts they will; instead, they should return to counterinsurgency's guiding principles and make sure they are properly implemented on the ground.

For starters, West argues that Western handouts have led to a culture of entitlement in Afghanistan, which, in turn, has bred opportunism rather than patriotism or a desire for self-improvement. This is a real concern: in 2010, foreign aid was equivalent to approximately 90 percent of Afghanistan's total GDP. To show the granular extent of such a culture of largess, West quotes a Danish soldier in the movie Armadillo encouraging his fellow soldiers to "give [food] to the children as a sign of goodwill." These handouts generate a sense of entitlement, and as West observes, the soldiers are soon "inundated with entreaties for money day after day."

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