COIN Stars

Counterinsurgency bloggers help set the Afghanistan agenda

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 (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.

In addition to Afghan Quest, many counterinsurgency blogs are written anonymously. At Ink Spots, for example, most of the bloggers write under pseudonyms. “I can give all the disclaimers I want, but I still don’t want to suggest to anyone that I’m speaking for my employer or anyone else to whom I’m connected in any way,” said one of Ink Spots’s bloggers, who writes under the name “Gulliver.” The authors of Ink Spots were each frequent participants in the comment threads of Abu Muqawama before starting their own site in 2009. “We all work in fields that are at least tangentially related to COIN and stability operations,” said Gulliver. “So blogging gives us an opportunity to both elaborate on work that’s going on in the field and provide analysis of ongoing operations. The informal nature of blogging means that we’re able to hopefully be more timely and responsive while also being a bit more casual than in academic papers or other formats like that.”

Anonymity also allows COIN bloggers who work for departments and agencies in the U.S. government to write candidly about subjects that could get them in trouble with employers who might have an interest in controlling perceptions about the war. “It is common knowledge that things are going badly here, and you will find plenty of memos or sources who will tell you in excruciating detail why things are all kinds of screwed up,” explained Tim Lynch, a former infantry officer who writes the blog “But doing so on the record shifts the conversation away from the message to the messenger.”

Ideologically, the “COIN Commentariat” can generally be split into two groups: What some call the “COINdinistas,” those that supported the military’s adoption of counterinsurgency tactics in Iraq and believe fundamentally in COIN doctrine; and “COINtras,” who are skeptics of COIN or its applications in Afghanistan. But no matter where they fall on the spectrum, most members of the COIN blogosphere seems united in their disdain for the mainstream media’s coverage of the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. “Most journalists wouldn’t know the difference between good COIN and bad COIN when they saw it,” said Old Blue of Afghan Quest. “The mainstream media has largely if not completely missed the opportunity to bring accountability through the wider conversation.”

Newspaper opinion pages too often give platforms to influential people with definite political agendas, according to some. “It’s 90 percent boosters of COIN, and a few cranks, and no substantive discussion,” said Joshua Foust. Others criticize the media for having accepted what they see as a facile explanation of counterinsurgency doctrine that emphasizes “winning hearts and minds” over the more aggressive or coercive tenets of counterinsurgency strategy.

Gulliver at Ink Spots, however, thinks that the popular understanding of COIN might finally be evolving. “There seems to be a general consensus settling over both the policy world and the media,” he said. “We have a better idea of how to do COIN well than we used to, and that understanding has helped to convince us that we ought to do it as rarely as possible, and only when it’s absolutely necessary.” So long as the war in Afghanistan continues, debate and dialogue over the counterinsurgency will undoubtedly thrive in the blogosphere. As the founders of the SWJ Blog write, “We do this in our spare time, because we want to. McDonald’s pays more. But we’d rather work to advance our noble profession than try to super-size your order or interest you in a delicious hot apple pie.”

Ten COIN Blogs to Read

Abu Muqawama

Afghan Quest


Danger Room

Free Range International

Ink Spots

Kings of War


Small Wars Journal Blog

Wings Over Iraq

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Maura R. O'Connor is a freelance foreign correspondent. This year she was awarded a Phillips Foundation Journalism Fellowship and will be reporting on American foreign aid from Haiti, Afghanistan, and Africa. Tags: , , , , ,