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Document created: 1 December 2007
Air & Space Power Journal - Winter 2007
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Dr. Conrad C. Crane*
The world became aware of the existence of a coherent body of theory about insurgency as a result of the revolutionary upheavals accompanying the deterioration of empires following World War II. Along with the propagation of ideas from Mao Tse-tung, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Carlos Marighella, and Vo Nguyen Giap came a corresponding attempt by counterinsurgents to develop their own set of practices and principles. The tenets of these mostly British and French writers were a product of many years of struggle in theaters from Algeria to Malaya to Vietnam, along with observation of many case studies. David Galula, Frank Kitson, Robert Thompson, and Roger Trinquier still have much useful information for current practitioners of counterinsurgency (COIN).1 Of recent note for anyone trying to learn about COIN from history is the comprehensive work of the Naval Postgraduate School’s Kalev Sepp, who looks at scores of historical cases to develop his own list of best and worst practices for COIN.2
When the Army–Marine Corps writing team for Field Manual (FM) 3-24/Marine Corps Warfighting Publication (MCWP) 3-33.5, Counterinsurgency, began their deliberations, they turned to these sages of the past to develop a baseline list of principles upon which to build the new doctrinal manual. Although this search proved very fruitful, the writers who were observers and veterans of recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq perceived that some new tenets also deserved emphasis, based on the evolving nature of modern conflict. As a result, the publication lists not only principles of COIN based mostly on history, but also imperatives derived from more contemporary experience. Together they provide a framework to discuss the pursuit of a successful COIN campaign. With some variation, the principles and imperatives from the new FM/MCWP form the basis for this article. More detailed explanations are available in that document.3 Although much of the discussion focuses on applications to American examples, these tenets are broadly applicable to the operational conduct of any COIN.
By definition, combatants on opposing sides of an internal war seek political power. Based on their own definition of legitimacy, the people of the contested region will decide upon the victor. That does not mean that illegitimate governments cannot rule. All governments rule by a combination of consent and coercion, and those defined as legitimate rely primarily on the consent of the governed. Governance that relies primarily on coercion is unstable; as soon as the state’s power is disrupted, the people cease to obey it. For long-term success, counterinsurgents must aim to foster the development of effective governance by a legitimate government.
However, the local definition of legitimacy may be far different from that of our Western liberal tradition. Some cultures may accept theocratic rule or value security over freedoms we consider essential. Counterinsurgents must conduct a thorough sociocultural analysis to determine what the local people perceive as legitimate government. Counterinsurgents must understand and reconcile differing standards, a task that may present difficulties for Americans who place high importance on democratic practices and liberal values. They must realize that local opinions—not ours—will determine legitimacy. However, in situations featuring intense civil strife in which local definitions of legitimacy become exclusionary or genocidal toward competing groups, intervening counterinsurgents may have to coerce belligerents, including a supported government, to create the possibility of political compromise.
The Primacy of Political Factors
Rarely are counterinsurgents successful with purely military action. Usually, peace is restored with some sort of political solution that addresses the root causes of the insurgency or creates broad popular acceptance for the government. The political and military aspects of internal wars are inseparably bound and must always be evaluated in concert. Despite the widely quoted dictum of Gen Chang Ting-chen, popularized by Galula, that revolutionary war is 80 percent political and 20 percent military, that ratio changes by time and place.4 However, military actions conducted without an assessment of their political outcome at best will result in decreased effectiveness and at worst may prove disastrously counterproductive. Counterinsurgents must stay focused on their vision for the political end state that will establish a legitimate government.
The writing team debated extensively about whether the new COIN doctrine should strive for unity of command or unity of effort. The consensus was that even though unity of command is ideal and preferred, it is also impossible to achieve in most COIN. Military commanders will find a myriad of players in their area of operations, ranging from US government agencies to the United Nations to nongovernmental organizations (NGO) (such as Doctors without Borders) to host-nation representatives. At the highest levels in-theater, the US ambassador and country team must be involved in all planning, but it seems apparent in both Afghanistan and Iraq that State Department and Defense Department elements have separate chains of command. Many NGOs actively resist overt involvement with military forces, but some effort at liaison must still occur. The stark reality is that insurgents wishing to sow chaos perceive any agency providing services as a target, and most NGOs realize that fact. However, although they desire security, they won’t accept much guidance. The best that one can hope for in many situations is what Gen Anthony Zinni, USMC, retired, calls “HAND [SHAKE] CON (Handshake Control),” an informal arrangement based on personal contact and understanding.5 The involvement of host-nation contributors at all levels is also essential in order to meet political goals and establish critical legitimacy. Military units must be prepared to commit considerable resources to liaison duties with these various players. They all have a contribution to make in restoring stability and improving conditions.
Contemporary predeployment training for units has changed considerably in terms of extensive orientation on the society and culture of the area of operation. Insurgents begin with a big advantage in local knowledge, and counterinsurgents must quickly immerse themselves in the people and their lives to catch up. Counterinsurgents must understand the power relationships, values, and ideologies within the society in order to understand the nature and nuances of the existing conflict. Accordingly, COIN requires greater emphasis on skills such as language and cultural awareness than does conventional warfare.
Counterinsurgents need increased cultural understanding to gather, comprehend, and apply intelligence essential for success in COIN. Without timely and accurate intelligence, military actions may be ineffective at best—counterproductive at worst. Effective operations must be shaped by timely, specific, and reliable intelligence that is gathered, analyzed, and applied at the lowest possible level—and disseminated throughout the force. Properly conducted COIN activities generate more important intelligence. A cycle develops whereby operations produce intelligence to generate and shape subsequent operations. Every counterinsurgent represents a possible intelligence collector, and every person a possible source of important information. Reports collected by unit patrols, members of the country team, and civilian agencies associated with COIN efforts often have greater importance than those from specialized intelligence assets.
Isolation is a common theme among COIN theorists: it is much easier to cut off an insurgency from its support and let it wither than to kill or capture every insurgent. To achieve long-term success, skillful counterinsurgents must eliminate the source of an insurgency’s recuperative power. Social, political, and economic grievances that fuel discontent must be addressed. Population control and border security can shut off physical support. In today’s interconnected world, financial support for an insurgency can come from a variety of sources. International or local legal action may be required to dry up those activities. As the legitimacy of the host-nation government grows, so will participation of the population in limiting support for the insurgency. Victory in COIN becomes permanent when the people actively support the isolation of defeated insurgent forces.
Regarding the challenges he faced conducting COIN in Vietnam, John Paul Vann remarked, “Security may be ten percent of the problem, or it may be ninety percent, but whichever it is, it’s the first ten percent or the first ninety percent. Without security, nothing else we do will last.”6 Counterinsurgents must clear areas of insurgent interference and maintain them that way in order to build facilities and institutions that will improve people’s lives and address their grievances. The ability to achieve security serves as a foundation of government legitimacy.
However, how one achieves that security can be just as important as instituting it. Acting in accordance with a legal system established in line with local culture and practices enhances the legitimacy of the government. But illegitimate acts by government officials or security forces can undermine any progress and help fuel the insurgency. These actions include unjustified or excessive use of force, unlawful detention, torture, and punishment without trial. Insurgents often capitalize on abuses by host-nation police or soldiers by making them a key mobilization tool. Participation in COIN operations by US forces must comply with our treaties and laws. Any human-rights abuses or legal violations committed by Americans quickly become known to the local populace and, eventually, to the world—take for example the local and international reaction to the abuses at Abu Ghraib. Illegitimate acts undermine both short- and long-term COIN efforts.
The new COIN doctrine is designed for application in a theater campaign, but the last principle speaks to decision makers at all levels. Resource intensive, COIN always requires considerable money, manpower, and time. Insurgencies are protracted by nature, designed to wear down opponents who have greater material assets. At the core of many critiques of the US performance in COIN is an assumption that Americans have neither the patience nor the will required for success in protracted conflicts. Insurgents and local populations often believe that a few years or a few casualties will cause the United States to abandon COIN. Bolstering faith in the steadfastness of American support requires constant reaffirmations of commitment by leaders at the national level and in-theater, backed by deeds.
The political activity of maintaining national public support back home properly lies outside the realm of the military commanders of intervening forces conducting a COIN campaign. However, commanders should ensure that their conduct of operations neither makes it harder for elected leaders to maintain public support nor undermines public confidence. Also, counterinsurgents must set up support structures designed for long-term operations. Planning and commitments must be based upon sustainable operating-tempo and personnel-tempo limits. The United States must also pay attention to extended requirements in order to maintain support for host-nation institutions even after reduction of American force levels.
Although all of the Cold War–era COIN theorists mentioned earlier would recognize these principles, the contemporary environment is not the same as theirs. Insurgencies today are rarely monolithic. More commonly, counterinsurgents face a complex, shifting array of enemies with differing motivations and approaches. Insurgents are often linked through dispersed networks, taking advantage of the Internet and new communications means that they also use to generate support and spread propaganda. These same technologies have not only increased the responsiveness and demands of the global media but also created a myriad of bloggers uncontrolled by anyone. In addition, the end of the Cold War unleashed many old hatreds and conflicts, which combatants can now pursue with a new array of widely available weaponry. So in addition to the historically based principles listed above, contemporary COIN requires considering an additional set of imperatives.
Every action has an information reaction. The old saying “perception is reality” has especial relevance to COIN, in which the attitudes of the populace assume such importance in determining victory. The information-operations logical line of operation—perhaps the decisive one for a COIN campaign—ties together and encapsulates all the others.7 Insurgents have a substantial advantage in the information arena since they can make exorbitant promises about what they would accomplish if they were in power, while the counterinsurgent must produce actual results, with words matching deeds.
Counterinsurgents have to consider the information impact of their actions on many audiences, including international, regional, and local civilian populations. Additionally, they must keep friendly military forces informed, and they should direct an information campaign at the enemy. For Americans especially, maintaining home-front support is also a factor. But messages to all these audiences must be consistent. In today’s globalized information environment, the local populace can access the Internet or satellite television to monitor messages transmitted to the international community and US public. Any perceived inconsistency reduces credibility and undermines COIN efforts.
Unmet expectations can fuel popular discontent. Some cultures interpret the failure to keep an overly ambitious promise of improvement as intentional deception—not as good intentions gone awry. To limit discontent and build support, counterinsurgents must create and maintain a realistic set of expectations among the populace, the international community, and even friendly military units. Effective counterinsurgents understand local norms and tailor approaches to control expectations. US forces face a unique challenge in this arena due to their reputation for accomplishment. Some people call this the “Man on the Moon Syndrome,” referring to the disbelief expressed by inhabitants of a battered village that a nation able to land a spaceship on the moon can’t quickly restore basic services or get everyone jobs.
Agencies involved in reconstruction can find themselves especially prone to rosy promises. Counterinsurgents must remember that they must match their words with deeds. Proper management of expectations to build legitimacy does require demonstrating political and economic progress to show the populace how life is improving. Successful COIN operations increase the number of people who believe they have a stake in the success of the state and its government. Eventual victory results in large measure from convincing a solid majority of members of the population that their lives will be better under the government than under an insurgent regime. The United States has experienced apparently greater success in maintaining local support in Afghanistan than Iraq because initial expectations in the former country were much lower than those in the latter and because Afghans have been more appreciative of small improvements.
During the many drafts of the new doctrine, the imperative regarding the use of force evolved from “minimum force” to “measured force” to “appropriate level of force.” Many contemporary writings about COIN stress the use of the minimum possible force in any situation. It is neither efficient nor effective to conduct a military operation that, by its unintended effects, creates more insurgents than it eliminates. However, at times a show of force becomes necessary to demonstrate commitment or to intimidate enemies. Furthermore, some implacable foes must be killed or captured. But counterinsurgents must carefully analyze the type and amount of force to use in any operation. Commanders should adopt appropriate, measured levels of force and apply that strength precisely so that it fulfills the mission without causing unnecessary loss of life or suffering.
The wielder of that force is also important. The populace will more likely view urban raids as legitimate if local police rather than foreign soldiers conduct them, as long as the former have a reputation for competence and impartiality. If the populace sees the police instead as part of an oppressive sectarian group, their use may prove counterproductive. Effective counterinsurgents must understand the character of the local police and popular perceptions of both police and military units. These factors are all part of the process to determine the most appropriate way of applying force.
The true unifying theme of FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5 involves learning and adapting. The new doctrine is just part of a broader process to change the way the military thinks. There are new scenarios at training centers, new curricula at schools, and new programs to prepare units for deployment. Contemporary insurgents are networked for adaptation, just as our own forces strive to be. Successful tactics with improvised explosive devices in Iraq soon appear in Afghanistan. Counterinsurgent tactics that work in one time at one location will be nullified in another location at a different time. Skillful counterinsurgents must adapt at least as fast as their opponents. Every unit must make observations, draw and apply lessons, and assess results. Commanders must have a process to distribute best practices throughout their commands and to exchange them with other units. Because insurgents will shift their operations, looking for weak links, a counterinsurgent force must enjoy widespread competence.
Contemporary COIN is a mosaic war. Commonly, in seminars at war colleges, two former battalion commanders from Iraq or Afghanistan will disagree strongly about the course of the war they observed. That is understandable because they did not see the same war. Different zones have different sets of conditions and enemies who employ a different combination of approaches. Local commanders should have the authority and resources to shape their own situations. They must have access to or control of resources necessary to produce timely intelligence, conduct effective tactical operations, and manage information and civil-military operations. An atmosphere of trust and understanding should permeate the force—one that allows the decentralized operations essential for effective COIN. Higher commanders owe it to their subordinates to push as many capabilities as possible down to their level and to encourage and enable initiative. This is a prominent characteristic of any COIN force that can adapt and react as least as quickly as the insurgents it is combating.
No matter the effectiveness of an intervening counterinsurgent force, the host nation will have to bring about and maintain final success. The long-term goal of any US COIN effort will entail leaving a legitimate government able to stand by itself. This requires the development of viable local leaders and institutions. Although it may be easier for US forces to conduct military operations themselves or for international civilian agencies to conduct development programs on their own, it is better to work to strengthen local forces and institutions and then assist them. In the end, host-nation governments have the final responsibility to solve their own problems. Eventually, the indigenous population will see all foreign armies of liberation or assistance as occupiers or interlopers, so the sooner the counterinsurgent force can transfer the main effort to host-nation institutions without unacceptable degradation, the better.
The new doctrine reflects the principles and imperatives described above. In an attempt to shape the future, members of the writing team did their best to combine the wisdom of the past with an appreciation for current realities. In accordance with the imperative to learn and adapt, however, these ideas can’t be locked in stone. As the long war continues, we must continue to perfect and refine them.
Some US Air Force critics of the new doctrine have decried it as “ground-centric.” Though one might reasonably expect such a focus in an Army–Marine Corps publication, that label is really a misnomer. Instead, the doctrine should be characterized as “population-centric.” A recent meeting of NATO doctrine writers in Paris exhibited universal agreement that this represented the proper way for militaries to pursue COIN—within a comprehensive approach that utilizes all elements of national power and with the participation of a broad spectrum of government, international, and host-nation agencies.8 There is still a role in achieving security for “warheads on foreheads,” to use a John Nagl term, but long-term success depends on a much wider array of activities than traditional “enemy-centric” approaches require. The challenge for the world’s mightiest air force lies in how to best adapt its impressive set of capabilities to work with that myriad of participating agencies in the comprehensive approach required for COIN. Everyone already recognizes and appreciates the advantages of air mobility. Plenty of room remains for innovative applications of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets to make significant contributions to COIN as well. The Air Force can also wield significant influence in cyberspace. No service has a better record of learning and adapting in wartime. And we need that ability again today.
* Director of the US Army Military History Institute, Dr. Crane holds the General Hoyt S. Vandenberg Chair of Aerospace Studies at the Army War College. He was the lead author of Field Manual 3-24 / Marine Corps Warfighting Publication 3-33.5, the counterinsurgency manual published in December 2006.
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1. David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (London: Praeger, 1964); Frank Kitson, Low Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency, Peace-Keeping (London: Faber and Faber, 1971); Sir Robert Thompson, Defeating Communist Insurgency (1966; repr., St. Petersburg, FL: Hailer Publishing, 2005); and Roger Trinquier, Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency, trans. Daniel Lee (New York: Praeger, 1964).
2. Kalev I. Sepp, PhD, “Best Practices in Counterinsurgency,” Military Review 85, no. 3 (May–June 2005): 8–12, http://calldp.leavenworth.army.mil/eng_mr/2006080808030243/2005/May_Jun/04_sepp.pdf#xml=/scripts/cqcgi.exe/ @ss_prod.env?CQ_SESSION_KEY=QRSTPUMYTHEQ&CQ_QH=125622&CQDC=5&CQ_PDF_HIGHLIGHT=YES&CQ _CUR_DOCUMENT=3. Dr. Sepp has just been named a deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict.
3. FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5, Counterinsurgency, December 2006, 1-20 to 1-26, http://usacac.army.mil/cac/repository/materials/coin-fm3-24.pdf.
4. See Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare, 89.
5. See Tom Clancy with Gen Tony Zinni and Tony Koltz, Battle Ready (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2004), 215.
6. Quoted in Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (New York: Random House, 1988), 67.
7. For more on the information-operations logical line of operation, see FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5, Counterinsurgency, 5-3 to 5-11.
8. Workshop on Counterinsurgency and Stability Operations: US, French, British, and German Approaches, Institut Français des Relations Internationales, Paris, 4 June 2007.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University
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