Friday, November 14, 2008

COIN of the Realm

I really need to get over to the Small Wars Journal more often. Sure, there are many articles which even a mildly-to-moderately conversant layman observer of military matters like myself will find hopelessly esoteric and specialized. But almost as often, one will happen across a gem like this article by Col. Robert C. Jones (.pdf), on the subject of counterinsurgency (COIN).

What sets this excellent little (3-page) article apart is the degree to which it is able to distill the extraordinarily complicated brew of COIN doctrine down to its most fundamental principles, yet do so in such a way that it serves as a very practical skeleton for a host of tactical decisions across a wide variety of disciplines, by showing how they are unified under the umbrella of a single overarching strategy. This is no mean feat of data compression, given the dauntingly dynamic complexity of COIN ops as they are executed in the real world.

The Populace

The populace is the center of gravity for both the insurgent and the counterinsurgent.
Both the governance and the insurgent arise from the same populace to compete for sovereignty. To attack the insurgent is to attack the populace, and only addresses a symptom of the greater problem.

Every populace has both the duty and the right to rise up in insurgency when governance fails, and those failures cannot be resolved through legitimate means (U.S. Declaration of Independence).

Insurgency is fundamental to man’s nature. While poor governance is always viewed through the eyes of each unique populace, virtually every man will become an insurgent when he cannot feed, clothe, shelter, and secure his family, and when he has no hope for a better future. Hope is directly linked to the powerful human emotions of pride and respect, and must not be underestimated. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is instructive for the counterinsurgent, and often it is failure high in the hierarchy that sparks insurgency.

The segment of the populace that one must focus on is the one that supports the insurgent. Design programs to address their concerns, and do not simply rely on the “loyal” segment of the populace to help suppress the rebelling segment. (Brits in U.S.; U.S. in Viet Nam and Afghanistan did it wrong; U.S. in Civil Rights movement did it right).
Here, Col. Jones opens with a shot which lands at the precise geometric center of the bull's-eye. A true insurgency is not something which arises out of nowhere, nor merely out of the narrow interests of a small group (or, if it does, it does not last long enough to be of serious the Weather Underground learned during the Sixties and early Seventies in the US). Instead, it emerges from a widespread and serious failure of governance to meet the needs of its populace. As such, insurgents perceive themselves to be fighting for the good of their community. The task of the counterinsurgent is to prevent the people of that community from feeling likewise, by demonstrating (not just declaring) that the insurgency can meet their needs less well than the government with which it competes for their loyalty and/or acquiescence.

By acting to shore up the essential functions of good governance (e.g., the provision of security, public health, infrastructure, and opportunities for prosperity), a comprehensive COIN operation acts to de-legitimize the claim which the insurgents can stake in the discontent of the people. Simply lopping off even key members of an insurgency can scramble its operational capabilities and degrade its effectiveness as a fighting force, to be sure. But, absent the undermining of the narrative through which an insurgency continues to recruit members from the host nation's population, such purely kinetic operations will do nothing save "reset the conditions of failure."

The last paragraph of the section I excerpted above speaks to a potential misunderstanding of COIN operations which is as serious as mistaking them for mere "Surges" in troop levels. Mounting a successful counterinsurgency is more than simply recruiting a cadre of "our guys" and pitting them against "their guys." Unless the underlying dysfunctions in a host nation's governance are addressed, then "their guys" will always have a renewable supply of recruits from among a population caught in the crossfire and hungering for a Change.

This is a lesson which we would do well to remember as we endeavor to implement COIN strategy in Afghanistan. Simply luring some tribes away from the Taliban and turning them loose may provide local pushback to the AQ-Taliban insurgency, and as such is not without value. But a counterinsurgent force must be able to insure the security and stability of communities which cooperate with it, facilitating improvements in the quality of life and providing a credible promise that those improvements will be sustainable over time (the "Clear-Hold-Build" policy), or else the insurgency will retain the ability to punish such cooperation, so no sane person would offer it.

Articles such as Colonel Jones' are essential because they provide a clear overview of a strategy which is all-too easily lost in a thicket of details and thus fundamentally misunderstood. At its root is an elegantly simple proposition: people long for security, justice, and opportunity, and will fight for them if they have to. Offer them realistic hope for these things, and they will judge you to be on their side in that fight.

And, lest any of you think that we are meddling unduly in internal matters when we engage in COIN operations far from our shores, let me remind you that local insurgencies like those in Afghanistan and (to a far lesser and ever-diminishing degree) Iraq are actively abetted by actors such as al-Qaeda and Iran, to serve aspirations which are ultimately global in scope. The work of counterinsurgency in any one theater is self-similar to and reciprocally linked with that global counterinsurgency which constitutes the core task of the Long War. We lose sight of that larger arc to our great peril.

So, read the whole thing.

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