Monday, February 7, 2011

COIN rhetoric versus reality

Over the last several weeks, I've been giving a lot of thought to a post that I've mentally titled "Rehabilitating Counterinsurgency." To this point the argument only exists in my head and a few scribbled notes (those notes do include a colorful chart!), but it's premised on the assertion that years of conceptual, rhetorical, and semantic laziness have brought us to a place where we no longer remember what counterinsurgency is, what it's supposed to be, and what its limits are. We'll see if I can flesh it all out this week, but in the meantime I want to highlight a phenomenon that's central to this subject: the disconnect between COIN rhetoric and COIN reality.

In reading Spencer Ackerman's Washingtonian profile of Michele Flournoy this morning, a line that was likely intended as a sort of boilerplate throwaway jumped out and really stuck with me. Spencer tries to summarize the inside-baseball of the "rise of the COINdinistas" with this quick and simple explanation:
But [the counterinsurgents] argued that American strategy in both wars was overly militarized and needlessly provocative, creating what CNAS nonresident fellow and Petraeus brain-truster David Kilcullen termed “accidental guerrillas”: new insurgents fighting the United States because of its early, heavy-handed tactics, such as encircling entire Iraqi villages with concertina wire.
(I've added the emphasis in the last bit for reasons that should become obvious shortly.)

Now look at this excerpt from a paper produced by the U.S. Air Force Academy's Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership about tactical adaptation in the 3rd ACR (pdf):
The next challenge facing the 3d ACR was to isolate and kill or capture insurgents while minimizing civilian casualties. To this end, the 3d ACR built an earthen berm around the city [of Tal'Afar] to direct the flow of residents and those insurgents attempting to flee through one of only two checkpoints.
(Again, the emphasis is mine.)

Operation Restore Rights and H.R. McMaster's broader Tal'Afar campaign are considered a huge success story for counterinsurgency, almost a proof of concept for the then yet-to-be-published doctrine. So how can it be that precisely the same tactic that facilitated this success is viewed in another context as an example of the very tactics that inflame an insurgency?

The answer is simple: COIN is -- and always has been -- about more than the love n' hugs tactics, the restrictive rules of engagement, the development aid and reconstruction projects that pundits and politicians have so enjoyed highlighting. It follows that simplistic explanations about the root causes of insurgency like the one Ackerman offers above are frequently specious and even dangerous. There can be a significant, substantive difference between tactics that prioritize population control and those that prioritize popular favor; when a choice is required between the two, we must be confident that the choice is informed by a demonstrable relationship between effects and mission accomplishment -- not simplistic bumper-sticker slogans like "the population is the prize."

One can fairly contend that population control measures and excessive violence in the early days of the Iraq war contributed to the recruitment of "accidental guerrillas;" I don't contest this. But it seems plausible to me -- and I'm no expert on this -- that insurgents were created not simply by the use of heavy-handed tactics, but because they were employed to no productive end. Perhaps if that concertina wire had helped U.S. troops to more effectively regulate levels of violence, those "accidental guerrillas" would have stayed home... or joined the ISF, like they presumably did in Tal'Afar. Maybe U.S. forces inflamed the insurgency in 2003 and 2004 because we didn't know what the hell we were trying to do in Iraq, not just because we were doing it badly. And maybe the very same things that constitute "doing it badly" when executed in a strategic vaccuum -- concertina wire, cordon-and-searches, kill-and-capture raids, use of intensive supporting fires -- can in fact be extraordinarily useful tactics when employed as part of a considered, cohesive, integrated campaign plan.

12 comments:

  1. Could it be that, in the first case, the barrier was in place to keep the locals in, while in the second case, it was to keep outsiders away?

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  2. Could it be that, in the first case, the barrier was in place to keep the locals in, while in the second case, it was to keep outsiders away?

    But this isn't actually true. The first case is a hypothetical: he's talking about "stuff like" a concertina barrier, etc.

    And the berm in Tal'Afar was designed to create chokepoints for population control, not simply to keep people out.

    The reality is that this kind of explanation is shorthand for the belief that an insurgency is created or driven by a military force just doing stuff the population doesn't like, which CAN be true, but is not often determinative or controlling.

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  3. I look forward to that 'Rehabilitating COIN' post, because I think you're getting at something interesting here. COIN warfare is still warfare, and that is not always going to be pretty. It includes a broad spectrum of methods, tactics, priorities, etc., and they are not all of the warm and fuzzy variety. The trick is using each tool in its time, place, and *proportion*. It seems to me that proper execution requires a clear sense of the big picture and a spot on reckoning of priorities, but by no means excludes some use of the more unpopular or aggressive tactics.

    I think part of what you are getting at here is that the 'warfare' part of COIN warfare kind of gets dropped in translation. I can definitely see that in public perception, more dangerously in the perception (or at least output) of commentators, journalists, etc. The scarier question is to what degree do these kinds of misconceptions pervade the people meant to be executing (or God forbid, planning) this stuff?

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  4. You're dead on. Debating different tactics in broad strokes makes for more colorful commentary, but ultimately it's the lack of strategy that determines when a particular tactic is prudent use of force and when it is thoughtless overkill - a strategy that, if it exists, seems to be changing constantly. You're also right to emphasize that however less appealing it might sound in print, COIN is about getting the population's respect, if not simply its compliance, rather than its love. Tactics should reflect that strategic reality.

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  5. Interesting enough in my home country of Malaysia, during the Malayan emergency certain parts of the chinese population were relocated into fenced in villages and that didn't seem to create accidental guerrillas but this has to be taken in the context of it being in a different time and place so would say it would depend on the situation.

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  6. Gulliver--interesting start. I hope you continue with a series. I think you're on to something. I think that saying that you lose because the military pisses off the population is a little bit like saying "we're not fighting corruption right." Well, corruption may not always be relevant or its relevance may vary.

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  7. @Dzirhan and @Gulliver,

    I was just going to make mention of the Malaya case in which COIN was discharged through rather harsh methods (especially when compared with preponderance of 'hearts and minds' stories concerning Afghanistan) including rigorous interrogation, (at times) collective punishment such as food restrictions, curfews and forced relocation of entire communities.

    I think a revisitation of COIN case studies is in order.

    Look forward to the post.

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  8. Natalie and Dzirhan -- The "coercive COIN" of Malaya is frequently cited by those we jokingly refer to as "COINtras" to contest the "pop-centric" narrative, particularly the work of Karl Hack and the memoirs of Li Peng. I've not read either, so I can't speak to whether the Gentiles of the world are representing them accurately or not.

    Pinpointing causality is complicated in all human interactions, including military operations. Though it's easy to understand why certain one-dimensional explanations have prevailed, I think we ought to be a little bit more honest and a little more agnostic when it comes to asserting simplistic tag-lines about insurgent motivations and the effectiveness of various tactics employed to address them.

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  9. Yes Natalie, one instance that sprang to mind to me is an opt-told story in which General Templar, the British commander personally went to a New village to tell the inhabitants that their rations were to be cut due to evidence showing them providing support to the Communists and would only be restored when attacks in the area ceased, imagine what the media and rights group would react to that today.
    Gulliver, agreed, too many try for a one answer fits all solution in this.

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  10. What must not be overlooked in a discussion of those food restrictions is that they were designed to strike at a critical vulnerability of the Malayan insurgents. Cutting back on the rations wasn't just to make the civilians miserable, but to make the point that if they could spare enough rice to pass some across the wire to the insurgents, they could do without that 'excess'. It wasn't punitive, at its core.

    Likewise the berm around Tal Afar restricted the ability of insurgents to move people and materiel in and out of the city. Moreover, I don't see how that berm (and the accompanying checkpoints) were punitive. Tighter control, yes, but I've never heard GEN McMaster discuss them as punitive.

    And no, COL Gentile does not accurately represent the oft-cited paper by Karl Hack. Hack points out that the Malayan counterinsurgency progressed through 3 different phases. The first (1948-50) relied on poorly coordinated sweeps and counter-terror. After being assessed as ineffective, the Briggs Plan was introduced (1950-52) which was significantly kinetic, but much more coordinated and coherent. Hack refers to is as 'clear and hold' and quotes the Briggs Plan as follows:

    Clear the country step by step, from South to North, by:

    (a) Dominating the populated areas and building up a complete
    sense of security in them, with the object of obtaining a
    steady and increasing flow of information . . .

    (b) Breaking up the Min Yuen within the populated areas

    (c) Thereby isolating the bandits from their food and information
    supply organisation in the populated areas

    (d) And finally destroying the bandits by forcing them to attack
    us on our own ground

    Hack terms the third phase under Templer (1952-60) 'optimisation', with a refinement of operational elements of the Briggs Plan, and an increased focus on addressing underlying grievances. Crediting the whole turn-around to Templer is inaccurate, but so is crediting it to counter-terror.

    For more detail in the counter-terror period, Huw Bennett's article provides plenty of detail, including how British preconceptions led to over-optimistic intelligence assessments of their effectiveness.

    There is a notable parallel between Hack's phases and the evolution of ISAF operations over time. The report from the December COIN conference in London contains some pretty good illustrations of the nuanced COIN efforts you're referring to, Gulliver - ones that very clearly involve integrated lethal and non-lethal LOOs (hat tip to Lil for passing it along).

    http://usacac.leavenworth.army.mil/blog/blogs/coin/archive/2011/01/26/counterinsurgency-conference-and-coin-qualification-standards.aspx

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  11. I do agree (as did many at that COIN conference) that there is no COIN silver bullet, even within Afghanistan (too much local variation). Rather, there is a set of principles that have to be interpreted and applied with regard to the specific context and conflict.

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  12. MK -- What must not be overlooked in a discussion of those food restrictions is that they were designed to strike at a critical vulnerability of the Malayan insurgents. Cutting back on the rations wasn't just to make the civilians miserable, but to make the point that if they could spare enough rice to pass some across the wire to the insurgents, they could do without that 'excess'. It wasn't punitive, at its core.

    Likewise the berm around Tal Afar restricted the ability of insurgents to move people and materiel in and out of the city. Moreover, I don't see how that berm (and the accompanying checkpoints) were punitive. Tighter control, yes, but I've never heard GEN McMaster discuss them as punitive.


    Not sure if this was directed at me, but I wasn't trying to make the case that either action was punitive. I was merely reinforcing the fact that 1) tactical actions that are integrated into a broader plan to isolate insurgents from civilians can be effective whether or not they inconvenience or even infuriate the mass of the population, and 2) simplistic bumper-sticker credos like "the population is the prize" tend to obscure more complicated realities like this by encouraging decision-makers to prioritize popular favor over operational effectiveness. At a certain point, these two measures start to merge somewhat; in the "clear" phase, priorities should be much less ambiguous.

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