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.