When Erik Smith accepted a one-year posting to Afghanistan as a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) official working with one of the U.S. military’s Provincial Reconstruction Teams, he received thirty minutes of Pashto language instruction and cursory training in counterinsurgency and stabilization strategy. “This is not the typical environment that USAID works in,” explained Smith (not his real name) of his job implementing development programs in coordination with the military’s development efforts, work that requires he don body armor and travel in convoys when not on a military base. “The training was satisfactory but it wasn’t good.” Trying to get a better understanding of what he would face when he landed in the field, Smith went online and discovered a blog called Afghan Quest. “It was amazing. I learned more from that blog than in all of my training,” said Smith.
Afghan Quest is written by an anonymous veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, who has since volunteered for two tours in Afghanistan as a tactical adviser in the U.S. military. The blog offers a candid insider’s view of the counterinsurgency from the ground, as well insight into Afghan culture, politics, and counterinsurgency (COIN) theory. According to Afghan Quest’s author, whose online pseudonym is “Old Blue,” he began blogging in 2006 to describe his experiences in Afghanistan to friends and family. “It was my return from Afghanistan that really brought me towards writing about COIN and less about the sensations and the experience on the ground,” he said. “There is a gulf between the reality in Afghanistan and the way that it is viewed and discussed in the U.S.”
In the last two years, Afghan Quest has received about 140,000 visits, a relatively small number until you consider its audience: development officials like Erik Smith; academics; members of the U.S., British, French, and German militaries, people in the Department of State, Pentagon, Department of Defense, and Congress. Old Blue’s writing has been reprinted in Small Wars Journal and quoted in policy papers; last year he was chosen to help write the “COIN Qualification Standards” signed by the Secretary of Defense, which outline task requirements for battalions and companies deployed in Afghanistan. NATO’s online library links to Afghan Quest under its section on counterinsurgency. Old Blue said he hopes to influence military behavior through his work and his blogging, but that Afghan Quest also aims to be an educational forum during a critical period of the war. “I think that the American people have been spoon-fed abysmally inadequate information about what COIN is, what stability operations are and about what we are doing in Afghanistan,” he said.
Afghan Quest is one of roughly a dozen counterinsurgency blogs that make up the “COIN blogosphere,” or what others refer to as the “COIN Commentariat.” According to their authors, these sites are exerting influence on policy as well as informing the debate swirling around the effectiveness of the counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan. The most well-known sites in this circle are Abu Muqawama, a blog written by former U.S. Army officer Andrew Exum and hosted by the Center for a New American Security; Tom Ricks’s “The Best Defense” blog, written for Foreign Policy; and the Small Wars Journal Blog, founded in 2007 as a companion to the Small Wars Journal. The SWJ Blog boasts over thirty contributors today, including Michael Yon, the former Green Beret and independent reporter, whose blogging from Iraq and Afghanistan since 2004 has attracted a dedicated audience in the U.S. military, from infantry soldiers to battalion commanders.
Other members of the COIN Commentariat may not attract as many readers but are no less significant. “We do not have a large audience in the general population,” explained Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project, who writes for Registan.net (and occasionally for CJR). Nonetheless, the site’s editors compare their readership to the Velvet Underground: small but very influential. As one example of Registan’s influence, Foust cites an early 2011 series of critiques of the U.S. military’s burning of Tarok Kolache, a village in Kandahar Province, as a counterinsurgency strategy. “I don’t know how much that changed the policy of doing so, since I don’t think it was a policy, but by drawing attention to it I was able to get a bigger public audience discussing and debating what that was about,” said Foust.