Sunday, October 18, 2009


SMALL WARS JOURNAL is a site of some depth, devoted to the study of COIN — COunter INsurgency. COIN has been a point of discussion by generations of military thinkers, and not just the product of today's fascination with concepts like Assymetrical Warfare, and 4th-Generation Warfare (4GW).

John Noonan is a contributor, with "An Interview with Peter Godwin". So, who's Peter Godwin?

Sometimes the most effective COIN lessons are found in the strangest of places. Some time ago, while researching Zimbabwe’s staggering collapse under the Robert Mugabe regime, I stumbled upon When a Crocodile Eats the Sun – a deeply moving memoir of Zimbabwe’s corrosive rot, told by native Zimbabwean reporter, Mr. Peter Godwin. Godwin spun his tale with an enviably smooth narration, blending microcosmic personal tragedies with macrocosmic political and economic failures into a sad, powerful account of a functional nation-state’s collapse. When I finished reading, I wanted more. Digging into Godwin’s author history, I came across Mukiwa, the fascinating autobiography of a white boy growing up in colonial Africa (and winner of the Orwell Prize for political writing).

Mukiwa spans multiple governments in a single country, as Godwin’s wonderfully interesting experiences stretch from Rhodesia as a British Crown Colony, to an international pariah, to an undeclared Republic, an unrecognized hybrid state in Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, and finally to Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. While Mukiwa isn’t necessarily a war memoir (though Godwin did spend much of his career as a war correspondent), several chapters are dedicated to his time serving with the British South Africa Police during the Rhodesian Bush War. So poignant were the stories from Godwin’s tour, I sent a copy to a close friend serving in Afghanistan. He too was taken with how simply and effectively Godwin laid out basic COIN principles, so much so that he had his NCOs read the chapters that I had bookmarked.

I reached out to Mr. Godwin, now a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, who generously agreed to sit down for an interview.

Q: During the Bush War, you served with the British South Africa Police -- a hybrid unit that was charged with an amalgamation of military and police functions. Given that the Rhodesian Tribal Trust Lands were similar to today's Afghanistan --in that the laws of local chiefs and warlords often trumped those of the national government-- would it be useful for NATO forces to adopt a similar hybrid force?

A: I think the key is continuity of intelligent presence. If you have one force that provides 'ground coverage,' starts to build relationships with locals, develops an understanding of the 'human terrain,' they inevitably end up in a quasi policing function, rather than in a purely military one - and that's what you need to win (or even hold) an insurgency war. All this can be jeopardized if you then send in a fire force that doesn't really know what's what on the ground, and is interested only in a specific mission, and may easily end up causing co-lateral damage that sets back the whole hearts and minds effort.
Part of the problem is choosing the personnel for the task, an 19 year old may make a perfectly good GI, but often isn’t yet ready to play the policing function, which is usually better done by someone with a little more maturity, experience, age. But the 'policing' function may very suddenly have to be supplemented by real military know how if things turn nasty, so these guys on the ground have to be able to look after themselves too.
There is inevitably a certain amount of anthropology to all this - but the local people are making also a very basic calculation, one that they are auditing constantly, and that's the balance of fear. However much they like you, however much you're helping out, providing transport, fixing stuff, being respectful of their customs, giving candy to the kids, whatever - they are also deciding who will punish them more if they don't cooperate - and by and large (in both Rhodesia and Afghanistan) it's the insurgents. The Taliban will wreak much worse vengeance on 'sell-outs' among their own people, than NATO will.

Of course, all this begs the main question. What is the relationship between NATO and Afghan forces? The more closely these are integrated, and the better their relationship and comms, then the more efficient you'll be. But there are all sorts of dangers here - for example if the Afghan forces you are working with in a particular location, are from somewhere else, a rival tribe perhaps, that can actually exacerbate tensions on the ground. NATO people need to know enough about the local politics to be able to navigate around it, and sometimes to exploit it to advantage. During colonialism, the British used to arrive in a place and seek out ‘the second strongest chief’ and offer to recognize him as paramount if he would work with them. (After all what motivation would the most powerful leader have to cooperate with interlopers?!)

Worth the read. 

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