Sides of the COIN - Johan Nagel and Afghanistan '11

By Alex Connolly 31 Mar 2016 15

If you didn't do your fair share of fighting up the Ia Drang last year, you really should. South African studio Every Single Soldier crafted a slick COIN wargame in Vietnam '65, one that received hearty praise across the board. Counter-insurgency is an extra-dirty business in the modern era, where the might of state actors don't quite have the purchase they'd otherwise have in more conventional scenarios. In a post-9/11 world, mired in protracted military campaigns, this is the war of the Now. This is also the war ESS's Johan Nagel wants to tackle in the follow-up to Vietnam '65, Afghanistan '11.


Hurry Up And Wait

Nagel himself is no stranger to the realities of counter-insurgency. Coming from a military family, where his father was a submariner, Nagel joined the South African Marine Corps. Thereafter, he went through the SA Army Infantry School in Oudsthoorn, achieving the rank of 1st Lieutenant and command of a platoon. South Africa was then engaged in the lengthy Border or Bush War, an interesting and underexposed Cold War conflict in Angola and Namibia, then South West Africa. From 1966 to 1990, the vacuum left in the wake of Portuguese colonial departure from Angola afforded Soviet and Cuban-backed revolutionaries fertile ground for growth and expansion. Nagel was deployed with his platoon from 1984 to 1987 to South West Africa and Angola, before being assigned to a counter-insurgency role within the regional townships. 

As you'd expect, this storied military experience goes a long way in informing wargame design.

"By far the biggest insight is knowing the importance and critical nature of intelligence and logistics," Nagel mused. "We used to say 'hurry up and wait' in the military. You have to experience the prolonged periods of boredom and then the intense short periods of action, which only comes with actually serving. Just to get an infantry company fed, clothed, cleaned and moving in the bush war was a mammoth task, hence the supply model overlay I have built into the COIN model."

This idea of logistics and supply was a large part of what made Vietnam '65 unique. Wargames are no stranger to modeling the basic requirement of keeping an army going, but across the isolated firebases of the Ia Drang, the logistical lifeline of heliborne infrastructure was a poignant departure. Beyond the material nature of operating in such conditions, Nagel's depiction of winning hearts and minds on, and in turn for, political willpower struck at the core of what makes counter-insurgency such an interesting aspect of modern conflict. But between his experience in Angola and our understanding of Vietnam and Afghanistan, do they all share the same characteristics?

"They are all classic COIN wars, with the local population at the centre of things, although at times it doesn’t appear that way," Nagel explained. "The local population bears the brunt of the war and are ultimately the deciding factor in the outcome. In all COIN wars you have a government, backed by a foreign power trying to keep the status quo whilst the insurgents, also backed by a foreign power, try usurp the government of the day, usually based on a popular cause amongst the local population. This theme is prevalent in all three theatres mentioned above, the major differences being the terrain!

"All the theatres have a degree of nuance, but the issues facing the foreign power are essentially the same: committing military resources to either support a politically aligned government or to over throw it, if not aligned. What can set foreign powers apart is the level of the commitment and the strategies employed; contrast the US strategy in Afghanistan and the USSR’s. The ultimate objective is a political one."


Beyond Military Operations

Afghanistan '11 looks to be a deeper analysis this mindset. It takes the concepts of Vietnam '65 and adds greater nuance in representing the embattled country and recent engagements. 

"Map sizes in Afghanistan ’11 are considerably larger," explained Nagel. "This of course brings in elevation which is something we originally wanted for the last game." The 3D terrain is modeled as close to the country's geography as possible, within the limits and mechanics of the game.  

"The campaign scenarios are fairly dynamic in respect of the composition and the location of enemy forces," he said. "But it must be remembered that built into the DNA of this game is a dynamic flow, making for accomplished Skirmish. Not just in regards to random maps, but layering in the element of elections and random external events."

These random events are represented by newspaper headlines, related to employed strategy. It sounds somewhat like the Will Wright or SimCity approach to taking the temperature of player progression, though far more sobering than 'Citizens Outraged at Lack of Malls'. Nagel goes on to suggest the word 'random' is perhaps not entirely the right word, given every headline is a product of player choices, but also has a subsequent resounding impact. Like any conflict of the modern era, publicity is half the battle. As such, winning hearts and minds returns in Afghanistan '11. Beyond visibly successful military operations, which was the sole dragnet for Ia Drang influence, players will be able to enact a variety of non-military or nation-building operations such as delivering aid, building roads and other types of infrastructure. 

The big shake-up comes in the form of periodic national elections. Constituents' concerns and sentiments form the foundation of these events, which can be altered by timely player operations prior to polling day. The outcome will have fairly dramatic consequences for all parties concerned. The ultimate goal is successfully handing over security operations to the Afghan National Army. Realpolitik and over a decade of internecine violence tells us this will be anything but easy. 


Asymmetrical Complexity

One particular layer of Afghanistan '11 is the location and destruction of opium crops, an industry that largely funds the country's insurgency. While the realities of opium production go beyond being discrete Taliban economic operations, Nagel is quick to specify it as such within the game. "Opium production is a particular and specific nuance we added into Afghanistan '11, and it represents the funding of enemy activities from the sale thereof. It is represented solely as enemy property and actually ‘grows’ through a number of turns, and when/if harvested funds additional Taliban activity in game. This is another layer the player needs to consider as opposed to just humanitarian actions and military combat."

Another essential part of Nagel's COIN design is the necessity of logistics and supply. However, the Huey and Chinook-driven corridors have been replaced and refined in the switch of theatre. 

"We got a mixed response from Vietnam '65 customers, in respect to the level of involvement required to keep units supplied," Nagel said. "This time, we have implemented a whole new system of logistics which facilitates a much smoother execution but at no point making the logistics less relevant. In essence, supply in Afghanistan '11 centers around the Forward Operating Bases, which now carry supply stock and automatically re-supply units within a given radius. This reduces the supply workload but maintains its importance.

"The supply model is also more concentrated on road transportation than by helicopter, so the player has to maintain a viable logistics network, but with less micro-management. Also FOBs can be upgraded to include field hospitals, vehicle maintenance yards and artillery pits. These serve to further streamline the supply model, which I believe will keep both sides of the debate satisfied."

Combat itself isn't too great a departure, and as was the case with Vietnam '65, not the central theme. However, each encounter is measured through a unit's firepower, experience, supply condition, health, terrain and elevation, friendly proximity, involvement of special force units and weather; eight specific parts collated and turned into a percentage for success. "We chose not to show the calculation with numbers in Vietnam '65, but rather with icons," Nagel said. "We want to avoid the ‘analysis paralysis’ that these calculations ignite."

As a man who has more experience than most with the realities of dealing with counter-insurgency, Nagel was realistic about depicting asymmetrical warfare. 

"I don’t think the COIN model in this franchise is even close to maturation yet," he admitted, "but maybe it's a good start. The whole concept of winning and losing on hearts and minds as opposed to the destruction of enemy forces is what sets this game apart. This concept is much harder to accurately portray than just purely conventional warfare. Afghanistan '11 is definitely a big leap forward from where Vietnam '65 left off, with the addition of so many more layers to the game, in service of asymmetrical complexity.

"This franchise will evolve over time. As with Vietnam '65, I already have a huge wish list growing for Afghanistan '11, which will keep us busy for quite some time!"


Hearts And Minds, Not Diesel And Howitzers

The future of the series looks very interesting. COIN projects beyond Afghanistan '11 will be set during the South African Border War, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and a return to Vietnam, in a sort of redux that includes graphical and gameplay complexity developed after Vietnam '65's release. It will be especially interesting to see Nagel and the studio tackle the bush war, given personal history and proximity.  

Nagel concluded with what he hopes to achieve with Afghanistan '11.

"First and foremost," He said, "I want this to be a fun and engaging gaming experience. This is an important statement and is why the game leans more to be conceptually rather than historically accurate. We are dealing with hearts and minds, not diesel and howitzers. COIN wars are a reality of our time and we need to develop models that accurately represent them, giving players not only insight but enjoyment in a contemporary setting. After all CNN has been promoting Afghanistan '11 for over 15 years now!"

An irrefutable point to end on.

Thanks to Johan Nagel of Every Single Soldier for his time. Afghanistan '11 will release Q3, 2016.

Tags: Wargame



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