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Counterinsurgency

27 Oct 2009 15:14

Military strategy, like most human enterprises, has fashions that come and go with changing political and technological circumstances. These tend to originate as innovative responses to thorny strategic problems that have defied resolution by more established means.

Having produced a successful outcome in one instance, these newly proven ideas then become entrenched in the habits or preferences of military organisations — often as a result of their leading exponents being promoted to senior positions – usually until they prove unsuited to the changed circumstances in which they're next employed.

In recent years, the strategy of the moment has been counterinsurgency (COIN), an approach that emphasises protecting local populations, respecting their institutions, listening to their concerns, and providing for their basic needs. The ultimate aim is to alienate the insurgency from local people, who can then either resist the insurgency themselves or at least throw their support behind nascent central institutions, such as the military or police forces, to fight the insurgency on their behalf.

Whatever one thinks of COIN, it has resonated deeply throughout western defence establishments. As President Obama weighs his options in Afghanistan, the default strategic preference of the US military – reflected most vividly in the McChrystal Report, which in my view lacks the exhaustive strategic reasoning that one might expect of such an important document – is for a full-fledged counterinsurgency.

What underpins this preference for COIN? [fold]

I think there are two factors. First, the principles and assumptions of COIN seem to coincide well with soldiers' sense of themselves as playing a constructive and beneficial role in the world. People who choose a career in the military often do so out of a genuine desire to help people and make a difference, and COIN, with its focus on nation building and protecting innocent populations, goes a long way toward satisfying that desire. This is all well and good, but it says nothing about the value of COIN as a set of strategic concepts.

Second, and far more importantly, there is a strong sense that COIN was shown to work in Iraq, where it was a prominent strategic feature of the 2007 surge. To me, this is a problematic assumption. While tens of thousands of extra troops on the ground – in neighbourhoods rather than bases — undoubtedly helped to suppress al Qaeda's movements, the strategic reorientation towards COIN nevertheless seems to have been at best a secondary factor in the improvements in security that occurred around that time.

Far more critical, it appears, was a calculation on the part of the major Sunni elements that their alliance with al Qaeda had become more a liability than an asset, and that if they were to enjoy any sort of future in Iraq they were best served by accommodating themselves to the reality of a politically subordinate position and cooperating with the US to defeat al Qaeda – a task for which they were also handsomely paid.

All of this leads me to wonder whether the people calling for COIN in Afghanistan might be making an age-old mistake: drawing the wrong lessons from the last war.

Photo by Flickr user lafrancevi, used under a Creative Commons license.

COMMENTS

28 Oct 2009 13:57

Stephan Fruehling is a lecturer in the Strategic and Defence Studies Program, ANU.

Raoul Heinrichs, for whom I have a great deal of personal respect, illustrates the misunderstandings and half-knowledge that pervade the Australian debate on counterinsurgency (COIN). His arguments are twofold: that COIN is a new 'strategy of the moment' being pushed by Western militaries, and that successes in Iraq were down more to Sunni political realignments than to COIN. On both accounts, he is simply wrong and misinformed – which makes his swipe at GEN McChrystal look all the weaker. 

First, Raoul seems to use the term 'strategy' in an artificially narrow manner limited to tactical and operational aspects of war. It is a very Australian mistake to confuse small-unit tactics or operations against irregular forces with COIN as a strategy. Tactics and operations are important levels of warfare, but strategy is the bridge between the military and political aspects of violence. 

To separate the political realignments that occurred before, during and after the 2007 surge in Iraq from the military operations that were designed to provide the context and incentives for such a development is hence to completely miss the central point of COIN as a strategy, and to do injustice to the sophistication and understanding of COIN that US generals and strategists acquired after several years of operations in Iraq. In the words of Frank Kitson: [fold]

The first thing that must be apparent when contemplating the sort of action which a government facing insurgency should take, is that there can be no such thing as purely military solution because insurgency is not primarily a military activity. At the same time there is no such thing as a wholly political solution either...the very fact that a state of insurgency exists implies that violence is involved which will have to be countered to some extent at least by the use of force.

Second, the recent renaissance of COIN study and doctrine in Western military forces should not be confused with earlier obsessions with 'effects-based operations', 'rapid decisive operations', the 'revolution in military affairs' or other historically ignorant fantasies. 

To begin with, it is not new. Many of the COIN classics that current doctrine draws on were written decades, sometimes centuries ago. And it is something that is unusual or 'new' only to those ignorant of the role of many, if not most, military organizations around the globe. While it is a mantra of post-modern political science to highlight the overwhelmingly intra-state nature of violence in today's conflicts, remarkably little notice is taken by Western academia and political pundits of the consequence: for military forces in countries as varied as Northern Ireland, India, Philippines or Columbia – to name but a few examples – COIN is the natural and everyday way of doing business.

More importantly, COIN is also much broader than the above mentioned fads – it is a paradigm for fighting insurgency that must be applied and adapted in line with the specific conditions and circumstances in each theatre, province, district or valley. Here, Raoul’s critique McChrystal’s report – which was only released in an abridged unclassified version, and whose purpose was not 'exhaustive strategic reasoning' but to help implement a given strategy – very much falls short. 

Reading McChrystal's report as demanding a 'full-fledged counterinsurgency' is correct at a very general level, but misses the central point of the argument: that NATO has not been paying sufficient attention to the consequences of its actions. This is not just to say that kinetic engagements have often created more enemies than they eliminated. It is about realising that NATO forces could best pacify some valleys by leaving them — the Korengal Valley and other places in Kunar and Nuristan provinces, for example. 

In contrast, Pashtun-dominated areas in Helmand or Kandahar would require more Western forces than deployed so far to roll back Taliban influence, and to extend and deepen the gains of recent months. 

The lack of understanding and detailed engagement in Australian public debate with what is going on in Afghanistan remains astonishing. No war was ever won by simply training four, or any number, of Kandaks (Afghan battalions). To conclude with some more of Kitson's writing: 

We have seen that it is only by a close combination of civil and military measures that insurgency can be fought, so it is logical to expect soldiers whose business it is to know how to fight, to know also how to use civil measures in this way. Not only should the army officers know about the subject, they must also be prepared to pass on their knowledge to politicians, civil servants, economists, members of the local government and policemen where necessary. The educational function of the army at these critical moments is most important. Amongst senior officers in particular, ignorance or excessive diffidence in passing along such knowledge on can be disastrous.

Australia's strategic community has some catching up to do.

Photo by Flickr user MATEUS 27:24&25, used under a Creative Commons license.

COMMENTS

2 Nov 2009 12:42

I've learned a lot from Stephan Fruehling in recent years. He's a former teacher of mine at ANU and a shrewd analyst of international and strategic affairs. But his recent criticisms of my sceptical take on counterinsurgency (COIN), however forcefully delivered, hit pretty wide of the mark.

First, to distinguish between the various factors that resulted in a more benign environment in post-surge Iraq is not to miss the point of COIN as a strategy, as Stephan claims. The question of which factor was decisive in quelling violence in Iraq is today of real importance, since the confidence — almost zealousness — with which the US military has begun advocating population-centric COIN in Afghanistan appears to rest in large part on a sense of triumphalism over the perceived success of that approach in Iraq.

Would officers really be studying anthropology and linguistics and languages like Pashtu and Urdu — in anticipation of ingratiating themselves with populations — without these perceptions, simply on the basis of the rich tradition of COIN that Stephan alludes to, from the Philippines and Malaya to Vietnam and Northern Ireland? And would Generals Petraeus and McChrystal have been given responsibility for the next war, had they not been lauded for producing a successful outcome in the last one?

Nor is it as self-evident as Stephan presupposes that there is a causal relationship between the US military's tactical, operational or strategic reorientation to COIN in Iraq and the political realignment of Sunni tribes and militias. [fold]

Indeed, there is considerable evidence that Sunni tribes presented the US with an offer to help fight al Qaeda in 2004, long before 'protecting the population' had become the operating mantra of US forces. At the very least, the 'Awakening' process appears to have been underway by the time US troops entered neighbourhoods to clear, hold and build. As Thomas Friedman points out in last week's NY Times:

The U.S. surge in Iraq was militarily successful because it was preceded by an Iraqi uprising sparked by a Sunni tribal leader, Sheik Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, who, using his own forces, set out to evict the pro-Al Qaeda thugs who had taken over Sunni towns and were imposing a fundamentalist lifestyle. The U.S. surge gave that movement vital assistance to grow. But the spark was lit by the Iraqis.

This raises the question: if the improvements in Iraq's security are attributable to the Sunni Awakening, and if the political decision that led to the Awakening was made by Sunni leaders largely independently – that is to say, if the COIN was not a decisive factor – on what basis should we think that translating the same COIN principles to Afghanistan offers the best chance for most cost-effectively defeating the insurgency and preventing al Qaeda from re-establishing its foothold?

Of course, General McChrystal could have spelled this out in detail in his 66-page report, and he really should have. But, as Stephan himself acknowledges, the McChrystal Report, though unequivocal in its assertion that a population-centric approach is the right one, concerns itself primarily with how COIN should be implemented, and says very little about the more salient question of why.

Finally, I think Stephan is right to caution against getting hung up on tactical and operational considerations, because it is at the strategic level of analysis in particular that a long and expensive COIN campaign in Afghanistan makes the least sense.

For one thing, even if it is successful, the costs of COIN promise to be extraordinarily high, both in absolute terms and relative to the benefits it could ideally produce. Even its most devoted supporters acknowledge that a major COIN campaign, with its emphasis on simultaneous top-down and bottom-up nation building, will take many years, cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and will inevitably entail the loss of many more lives.

And the benefits? Well, assuming success, al Qaeda would be prevented from re-establishing its presence in Afghanistan. However, while that has been the objective from the outset, strategically, it may be far less beneficial than it seems. After all, al Qaeda is already entrenched in Pakistan, a few hundred kilometres away, where it would presumably remain, and from where it could continue to raise and train forces and plan attacks against various targets.

Not should we assume success. As Harvard's Stephen Walt notes:

The Karzai government is corrupt, incompetent and resistant to reform. The Taliban have sanctuaries in Pakistan and can hide among the local populace... Our European allies are war-weary and looking for the exits. The more troops we send and the more we interfere in Afghan affairs, the more we look like foreign occupiers and the more resistance we will face. There is therefore little reason to expect a US victory.

As President Obama weighs his next move in Afghanistan, he'll do well to ignore the option that McChrystal served up to him. With massive costs, few benefits, and little chance of success, a major COIN effort, I fear, is a recipe for disaster.

Photo by Flickr user Jonathan W, used under a Creative Commons license.

COMMENTS

4 Nov 2009 13:46

Stephan Fruehling is a lecturer in the Strategic and Defence Studies Program, ANU.

Raoul Heinrichs' argument remains based on two fundamental but related misunderstandings, of counterinsurgency (COIN) and US strategy in Afghanistan.

Raoul's statement that 'population-centric COIN in Afghanistan appears to rest in large part on a sense of triumphalism over the perceived success of that approach in Iraq' misunderstands the nature of military doctrine. Doctrine is a set of ideas that can inform the development of a strategy – it is not a set of prescriptions, nor is it a template ready to be applied. 

The AirLandBattle manual did not contain GEN Schwarzkopf's famous left hook manoeuvre of the 1991 Gulf War, although it was clearly inspired by it. Similarly, US Army COIN manual FM 3-24 does not contain any COIN plans for Iraq or Afghanistan, but rather sets of ideas that can inform the development of a proper campaign plan. [fold]

This issue is usefully illustrated by Raoul's own point about US COIN operations during the 'surge' in Iraq. It is true that for a variety of reasons, some Sunni tribes started to have second thoughts in 2004 about the Faustian bargain they had entered into with al Qaeda in Iraq. But the point is that Coalition forces sat by and watched in 2005 as any such resistance was brutally squashed by al Qaeda forces. 

In contrast, in 2006, US Marines in Al Anbar began to apply COIN principles and dispersed among the population in the province, linking up with tribal resistance fighters, and thereby enabling the split that would soon develop into the Anbar Awakening. The US surge in 2007 extended a similar approach across the other Sunni areas, including in Baghdad. US Marines and US Army understood and applied COIN doctrine in order to develop a proper campaign plan. 

This leads us to Raoul's second misunderstanding, the way in which the experience from Iraq can be used to make arguments about Afghanistan. Insofar as he continues to suggest that the US seeks to replicate the Iraqi Awakening in Afghanistan, he is simply out of touch with the US campaign in that country. In Iraq, the central danger in 2006 was conflict along sectarian lines, fuelled both by al Qaeda in Iraq and Shiite militias, which was threatening to tear the nation apart. 

In contrast, despite the fact that violence in Afghanistan is concentrated in Pashtun areas, the importance of local factors is much greater, and anti-Government forces much more diverse than the popular 'Taliban' label suggests.

In Iraq, the US narrowly avoided civil war between different factions focused on Baghdad. In Afghanistan, the conflict is better characterised as several parallel but smaller rural insurgencies in different parts of the country; in particular in Kunar and Nuristan, the Greater Paktia area, and Helmand and Kandahar. Between these areas, motivations for support of the insurgency vary greatly; as does the strength of tribes and other traditional power structures (see the Lowy Institute's recent paper on tribal engagement in Greater Paktia). 

At the core of the emerging campaign plan for Afghanistan thus lies a much greater focus on local conditions than has been evident in ISAF operations so far – both in terms of reducing the factors fuelling the insurgency, in empowering whatever tribal structures can constrain Taliban influence, and in improving local governance from the bottom-up, working around rather than with corrupt central authorities. 

The purpose of McChrystal's Initial Assessment was to highlight elements on the basis of which the campaign plan would be developed – not to be the campaign plan itself, let alone to discuss 'the more salient question of why' COIN should be implemented, as Raoul would like to have it: that is a question for the White House to decide, which to this end had, after all, commissioned the Riedel review of early 2009.

Despite his criticism of US COIN doctrine, Raoul does not engage with the large and ongoing discussion about how the COIN campaign in Afghanistan should proceed in different parts of the country. Towards the end of his post, the reason becomes clear. Since even a successful COIN campaign 'will take many years, cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and will inevitably entail the loss of many more lives', he thinks it is not worth the 'benefit'.

While I would disagree about the chances of success, this is an opinion to which he is perfectly entitled — even if his assessment seems to disregard the links between events in Afghanistan and Pakistan's policy towards its own Pashtun areas. But whether the Afghan war is worthwhile is a decision for the US to make, and the reader is left to wonder about the purpose of Australian advice to the US that consists of pure opinion, without even the suggestion of an alternative strategy.

This may be annoying rather than worthy of comment if it did not have implications for the Australian strategic debate. On COIN – like on so many other issues – that debate is polarized into two extreme camps. On the one side, those who see the 'Australian digger' as a 'natural' COIN fighter, imbued with experience from Malaya to Timor, and hence above the reality of painful learning that his allies are going through in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

On the other side are those, like Raoul, who are opposed to the operation in Afghanistan, who see the war there as a distraction from what they perceive (or prefer) as the most important strategic issues for Australia and Asia, and who are led to make general swipes against COIN doctrine as a proxy for arguments about the war itself. 

Like so many extremes, both positions are impossible to support on the basis of the historical record, and like so many other extremes, they ultimately converge in their practical consequences: that the ADF, and the Australian strategic community at large, can avoid engaging with the difficult detail of real COIN operations and developing its own perspective on the strategic level of war. 

This should be of concern to all of us who expect that Australia may, one day, have to deal with a serious conflict in its own neighbourhood, and who rely on the ADF to develop and prosecute a self-reliant campaign. It is to be hoped, therefore, that the Lowy Institute's most recent Paper by Mark O'Neill will help re-build a sensible middle ground for Australia's engagement with counterinsurgency, and with the conduct of war more generally.

Photo by Flickr user lakerae, used under a Creative Commons license.

 

COMMENTS