I am attending a workshop organized by Eli Berman at UCSD. Eli and his co-authors have been studying the military surge in Afghanistan. Colonel Joe Felter, a key member of the research team, presented an overview of the theory of counterinsurgency (COIN) – How can the Afghan government and the US forces “win hearts and minds”?
Think of Apple and Samsung competing for consumers. In the end, a consumer hands over some cash and gets an iPad or a Galaxy. Both sides of the exchange have sealed the deal, an exchange of a product for money. The theory of COIN works the same way. Two potential governments compete for allegiance from an undecided population. They offer them security and public goods in exchange for allegiance. They may also use coercion and violence to compel compliance. There is a key difference – an Afghan citizen can take the goodies offered by the U.S., claim he will offer his allegiance and then withhold it. The exchange takes place over time and there is no “contract” that guarantees payment of allegiance for US bounty.
The Afghans will offer their allegiance to the government that will be around in the long run. And the Taliban tell them, “The Americans have watches but we have the time.” And this strategic issue undercuts the theory of COIN. How can the surge work if one of the firms that is trying to sell you a product won’t be around to honor the warranty?