The present NATO strategy in Afghanistan is referred to as COIN (counterinsurgency strategy). The main objective of this strategy is gaining the trust of Afghan civilians by winning their “hearts and minds,” a strategy that decreased violence and possibly prevented an all out civil war in Iraq in 2007. In Afghanistan however, violence has increased dramatically the past two years, and although it is still early to say whether the COIN strategy is working or not, the statistics show a dark image of the future of the country. Lorenzo Zambernardi, a University of Bologna-Forli lecturer and doctoral candidate of Ohio State University’s Political Science department has written an interesting article on the “impossible trilemma of counterinsurgency.”

The impossible trilemma of COIN, Zambernardi says, is the fact that in order to succeed with COIN you need three achievements, but only in reality a state or a military force can conduct two of them, as all of them are impossible to achieve simultaneously. The three pillars of COIN are: 1) Force Protection (the security of your own troops) 2) Distinction between enemy combatants and noncombatants and 3) the physical elimination of insurgents. For instance: A military force can secure its own troops while fighting insurgents, but only by risking the killing of civilians. In order to protect civilians, the military must abandon the objective of excessively fighting insurgents who hide amongst civilians, as the U.S. started to do in Iraq after the “surge” of 2007. In Afghanistan, however, Zambernardi points out that the 30,000 additional troops sent there will strengthen the counterinsurgency-operation, however, it will also increase NATO casualties. This will in turn jeopardize the declining popularity of the war, as we have seen happen here in the U.S. during the past several months. He further points out that if casualties continue to increase into 2011, the public’s view of the war may turn largely negative, or turn in favor of more discriminate strategies, which will certainly undermine the political ends of counterinsurgency.

Putting the local population at the core of the COIN effort will mean that ISAF forces will have to move out of their armored vehicles and fortified bases, and in to less protected places (often very vulnerable to ambushes). A way to prevent this is perhaps finishing the training of Afghan security forces, but that is a long term goal. Zambernardi says that the impossible trilemma of COIN explains that to protect the population, which is necessary to defeat insurgencies, and to physically defeat an insurgency, military forces will have to be sacrificed. And if more soldiers are listed KIA, it is possible that in the end, the civilian population of Afghanistan will be sacrificed in order to accomplish the primary objective, which to begin with was killing and capturing al-Qaeda members.