Stakeholder-centric COIN: interview on Small Wars Journal


An interview at the Small Wars Journal website with Karsten Friis, a Norwegian expert.

A certain amount of my output on irregular warfare could be described as games swirling around the ideas of population-centric COIN (colloquially, the “hearts-and-minds” approach) as opposed to the enemy-centric COIN (sometimes called “counter-terrorism”, or it was so recently, but it can shade off into the “pyramid of skulls” approach too).

What the interviewee is talking about here is that neither approach has been particularly successful when applied in the strict sense, but that the role of government and its expeditionary/ interventionist allies should be to weaken the armed insurgents and other agencies driving the violence to the point where you can hammer out a peace. You can’t get ’em all. He says:

We have argued in favor of what we call a ‘stakeholder centric’ COIN. The center of gravity is the forces engaged in the conflict. A solution will need to include them, they cannot be excluded. Even jihadist movements with a global ‘brand’ tend to often be largely locally based and fuelled. They can therefore potentially be reconciled into a local solution. If you want to have a sustainable peace then some kind of a legitimate political construction is needed. There will have to be some kind of political agreement where some of the grievances of the insurgents are addressed. You need political and cultural intelligence to understand the environment, who are they, why are they fighting. The political strategy that the COIN operation is supporting should address all these features in order to formulate a political solution once the opponents were weakened enough and are ready to negotiate. In most societies you can talk about stakeholders. They could be warlords, religious leaders, elders, people that represent constituencies that are essential to achieving lasting societal stability. A COIN operation should therefore be stakeholder-centric so the focus should be aimed at all the relevant societal stakeholders that may impact on a future political agreement. The goal is not that of re-engineering a foreign society, but more along the lines of facilitating/enabling a political process that is representative of the main political stakeholders and political forces.

The process of continual abstraction that’s done in trying to get a reasonably playable game on a conflict, to the point where it hits at least some of the higher spots of a functional model of that conflict, blurs the distinctions between the kinds of COIN described. You remove a black octagon from the board; was its leadership vaporized in a drone strike or did everyone go home because that greedy tax collector was finally killed? The in-game procedures might differ but to the play of the game, generally the result is the same – unless the designer has tried to make the results differ too (e.g. in games where I’ve tried to reflect some aftereffects of strenuously-applied kinetic operations).

Another difficult point is when and how the game ends. It has to end, because there are only so many cards in the Event Deck, and people will sit still for only so much of this nonsense before they remember that they have other things in life to do. Barring some faction’s early victory, Volko Ruhnke’s and Mark Herman’s Fire in the Lake ends in 1972, as that was when the Paris Peace Accords started to get hammered out – not in 1975 when the NVA T-54s broke down the gate of the Presidential Palace in 1975. Colonial Twilight ends in 1962 with negotiations as well, as the intention of the French government to divest itself of formal administration of and responsibility for Algeria is a given in the game.

I’ve been thinking about that recently. Once in a great while there will be a game designed on the political pre-game that positions the antagonists for the war, e.g. Days of Decision (I, II and III) by Australian Design Group, and the interesting but untested political pre-game that was included with Arabian Nightmare: Kuwait War back in 1991. But once the game’s over, there is a hurried post-mortem while the pieces and cards are swept up and re-bagged for next time. That political process of hammering out the peace, and just as importantly the reconciliation of foes, is something that never gets covered in the games. There aren’t even any games that cover it, not even the positioning for it, though I try to reflect that in the wording of some of the victory conditions of my games.

Well, that’s not the point, people will say… I signed over my Saturday afternoon for the Big Sweep, not to pretend I’m sitting around a conference table after the shooting’s done. And they’re right, in their limited way that reflects how all these games are also limited.


About brtrain
This blog is mostly devoted to posts, work and resources on "serious" conflict simulation games.

2 Responses to Stakeholder-centric COIN: interview on Small Wars Journal

  1. defling says:

    What would a non-stakeholder centered war look like?

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