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  • Writer's pictureMichael Shurkin

Loose Change No. 9: The Misapplication of Economy of Force in COIN

French military strategist General André Beaufre in his Introduction to Strategy reminded us that economy of force too often is understood to mean the opposite of concentration of means. Indeed, Foch himself explained the Principle of War by citing the aphorism that “one does not hunt two hares at the same time.” This appears to be a mandate to NOT allocate forces here so as to be able to concentrate them there, where presumably they are needed to achieve a “major effect,” as the French might say, or strike at some “center of gravity,” as Americans with Cliff Notes versions of Clausewitz might put it. Beaufre insisted on the contrary that economy of force really means the art of allocating one’s resources to get the best possible return. It’s about optimization. That might mean neglecting one thing for the sake of another, but not necessarily so. It all depends on the situation, which is why Foch insisted on asking, first of all, “De quoi s’agit-il?” Roughly: What’s it about? What does it take in this particular war to achieve a ‘major effect?’

In Afghanistan “economy of force” was invoked to justify or perhaps even encourage ignoring large swathes of the country and its people for the sake of concentrating forces in certain other places, which tended to be violent tribal areas in districts in ISAF’s southern and eastern commands. “Economy of force” was the answer to the question, “why isn’t the USG or the US military present in this relatively peaceful district?” This applied, to name just a few locations, to Bamian province, Kabul itself, Herat, and for many years, the near entirety of RC-North. We ignored these places while concentrating our efforts elsewhere.

The result of this policy was to neglect peaceful areas in which large numbers of people—many of whom were the new Afghan government’s natural allies and who had a stake in its success—lived.

Why does this matter? First, because COIN strategy is supposed to be population centric. The people, as they say, are the center of gravity. Moreover, getting Afghanistan to stand on its own two feet requires rallying all those who have an interest in it doing so. This means engaging those people—think of it as a silent majority rooting for the US coalition--as opposed to those who wanted the Afghan government to fall. Or, think of all of Kabul etc. as an ‘oil spot.’ Classic COIN doctrine doesn’t say “ignore the people in the safe zones.” It says one should pour resources into those areas to make a positive difference, while concentrating actual combat forces at the edges of the zones or outside their boundaries for the sake of expanding the oil spots or preventing the enemy from seizing the initiative or concentrating forces. Of course, the host nation needs to take the lead within the oil spots in favor of the population it ostensibly served. As far as I know, it did not, and US forces could not be bothered because of “economy of force.”

The image above is a cartogram demonstrating where Afghans really live. It would be edifying to line this map up with one showing where the US and other international actors put their resources. Odds are the two maps would look different.

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